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Rebelling against extinction

Extinction Rebellion protestors, with their campaign of non-violent civil disobedience, may seem worlds apart from local councils declaring a climate emergency but they are actually remarkably similar, writes Rod Oram.

Around the world, people are getting more anxious, angry and engaged about climate change. This is triggering a big shift towards citizen activism which is beginning to push traditional power structures to respond.

The evidence includes the demonstrations that locked up key parts of central London in April, and the rapid rise of declarations of climate emergencies by local and national governments.

Here in recent weeks, the first four councils to do so were Environment Canterbury, Christchurch, Nelson and Auckland. They’ve joined a list of some 600 elected bodies representing some 74 million people in 13 countries.

Remarkably, almost all those declarations, which cover 1 percent of the planet’s human population, were in the past five months. Only a dozen or so were in the previous few years. The honour of being first in December 2016 seems to fall to Darebin, which is home to 150,000 people in metropolitan Melbourne. Last month, the UK Parliament was the first national body to declare a climate emergency.

Even more notable is the phenomenal rise of Extinction Rebellion. Founded in the UK only 12 months ago, local groups have sprung up in some 30 countries so far, including ours. The origins of XR echo history. A few months after it began, a group of 100 UK academics signed its call for climate action, just as the UK’s Committee of 100 launched in 1960 the campaign of non-violent civil disobedience against war in general and nuclear weapons in particular.

... every campaign over the past 50 years that had the sustained participation of at least 3.5 percent of the population was non-violent, and every one of them succeeded.

People drawn to XR are rebelling against the risk of human extinction. That’s a fate many of their fellow citizens find too outlandish or frightening to contemplate. But if we humans carry on as we are, causing climate change, biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse, we will drastically damage those very systems on which our lives and survival depend. The risks rise with every day we delay changing our ways.

XR states its three goals are:

-  "The Government must tell the truth about the climate and wider ecological emergency, reverse inconsistent policies and work alongside the media to communicate with citizens.

- The Government must enact legally binding policy measures to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2025 and to reduce consumption levels.

- A national Citizens’ Assembly to oversee the changes, as part of creating a democracy fit for purpose."

Its stated 10 principles include non-violence and “to avoid blaming and shaming – we live in a toxic system, but no one individual is to blame.” Its aims and tactics are clearly resonating with fellow citizens. Despite the disruption XR’s London protests caused in April, and the arrests of more than 1,000 people involved, they were endorsed by roughly half of respondents to public opinion polls.

And XR and its mass activism was strongly supported by influential global environmental leaders Bill McKibben and George Monbiot in articles they wrote in The Guardian in April.

The power of non-violence

But mass activism does not mean mobilising nations, as Erica Chenoweth, a professor of political science at Harvard, has found. She collected and analysed data since 1900 on all cases around the world of campaigns involving at least 1,000 people seeking to overthrow their government or liberate their territory.

She discovered that non-violent campaigns were twice as likely to succeed as violent ones, and even far more so in the past 50 years. Moreover, non-violent campaigns attracted on average four times as many people as violent ones. They were also far more representative by gender, age, class, political party and urban/rural distinctions. Crucially every campaign over the past 50 years that had the sustained participation of at least 3.5 percent of the population was non-violent, and every one of them succeeded.

Chenoweth describes her findings in this article, which includes a link to a video to one of her presentations.

The power of local action

A local council voting unanimously to declare a climate emergency seems worlds apart from a movement to overthrow a government or liberate territory. But they are remarkably similar. Both recognise the incumbent system causes grave damage; and both realise rectification requires fundamental changes in values, systems and goals.

And locally is absolutely the right place to work on climate change. While the challenges are utterly global, all actual action only happens on the ground, locally. Then the stronger and faster the local response, the greater the appetite for ambitious and effective national policies, and then international agreements to guide the global response.

Our towns and cities have a wealth of opportunities to improve their existing buildings and systems for transport, energy and waste, and to design and build new systems. The triple benefits would be the reduction of emissions and use of resources; increased health and resilience of ecosystems and all their inhabitants, including people; and improved liveability for city residents and visitors.

Those are immensely complex, interdependent challenges. To start getting serious about the work involved, Auckland Council, for example, has developed a draft framework for responding to climate change which would begin to deliver on those outcomes.

But on its current course, the city is heading in completely the opposite direction. Between 2009 and 2016, its emissions rose 5.6 percent. If this trend continued, Auckland’s emissions would increase by 27 percent by 2050.

Yet, the city and its residents must achieve net zero emissions by 2050, which is the global benchmark for keeping the rise in temperatures to 1.5c and the climate crisis manageable. To reach net zero by 2050, Auckland needs to sharply decrease emissions over the next 10 years for starters, the council says.

... it will be immensely hard to persuade people climate change really is a present and escalating emergency.

All that will require very soon a giant leap in citizens’ understanding of the threats and opportunities of climate change and a commitment to act on and invest in them. For a large proportion of voters, though, that would be a radical shift from their current resistance to change.

They might be persuaded that, say, a very modest increase in rates would help to invest minimally in safeguarding and improving the city. But the only emergencies most know are sudden, brief and highly local ones such as floods or storms. Victims of our recent earthquakes know the far bigger picture but only during and after the shattering events.

So, it will be immensely hard to persuade people climate change really is a present and escalating emergency. It demands a long term, systemic response beginning right now. Dealing with the effects of our climate catastrophe when they hit fully home will be far too late.

Auckland Council says the Civil Defence Emergency Management Act 2002 does not apply to this far greater challenge. But in fact, the Act’s definition of emergency embraces the conventional view of them, while also giving scope for our far bigger, long-term response to the climate crisis:

"Emergency means a situation that—

a) is the result of any happening, whether natural or otherwise, including, without limitation, any explosion, earthquake, eruption, tsunami, land movement, flood, storm, tornado, cyclone, serious fire, leakage or spillage of any dangerous gas or substance, technological failure, infestation, plague, epidemic, failure of or disruption to an emergency service or a lifeline utility, or actual or imminent attack or warlike act; and

b) causes or may cause loss of life or injury or illness or distress or in any way endangers the safety of the public or property in New Zealand or any part of New Zealand; and

c) cannot be dealt with by emergency services, or otherwise requires a significant and co-ordinated response under this Act."

Cutting right to the heart of the matter, here are two thoughts:

The word emergency comes from the Latin word emergere, meaning to arise, to bring to light. That’s what we’re doing when we declare we have a climate emergency.

Emergencies bring out the very best in people and communities. They achieve far more and faster than they ever believed possible because everybody gives their urgent best for the common good.

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