Fight or Flight?

Fight or Flight?

When someone like Professor Sir David King says he’s scared by the number of extreme weather events we are seeing – far more and with greater frequency than the climate scientist authors of the Fourth IPCC Report predicted in 2014 – we should all listen. In fact, we should all be scared. Scared enough to realise that the time for meaningful action to tackle climate change is now – before it really is too late. Speaking to the BBC, Professor King, a former chief scientific adviser to the government, said: “It’s appropriate to be scared. We predicted temperatures would rise, but we didn’t foresee these sorts of extreme events we’re getting so soon.”

There is an understandable concern about growing “eco anxiety” amongst teenagers – the first generation which is likely to be really seriously affected by the impacts of climate change and yet who may not be in a position to make the real changes needed to arrest catastrophic global warming – in the law, in industrial processes, in sustainable energy supplies, in less resource intensive “stuff”. The UN’s weather chief Petteri Taalas, the secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), has said that using words like “scared” could make young people depressed and anxious. He says that scientists should “stick to the facts, which are quite convincing and dramatic enough. We should avoid interpreting them too much”.

In response, Professor Jo Haigh – until very recently Professor of Atmospheric Physics at Imperial College London and co-director of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment – says: “David King is right to be scared – I’m scared too….We do the analysis, we think what’s going to happen, then publish in a very scientific way…Then we have a human response to that… and it is scary.”

One of the guests in our latest Planet Pod podcast was Henry Scott, a youth climate striker and a member of UK Student Climate Network – a group of mostly under 18s taking to the streets to protest the government’s lack of action on the Climate Crisis. They are instrumental in mobilising unprecedented numbers of students to create a strong movement and send a message that young people are tired of being ignored. Their message: “Standing Up for Our Climate Until Our Leaders Take Action”. A manifestation of this was the Climate Strikes on Friday 20 Sept which saw millions of people – young and old – around the world take to the streets in protest. Henry is young, intelligent and articulate. He is also scared for the future – not just his and his friends’ future, but the future for all of us on the planet. But he also amazingly positive and has taken the time and trouble to think about what changes he thinks are necessary to pull us out of this climate emergency. Far from being driven to despair by the science and its implications, Henry has been spurred by this to take a stand, to make a noise, to say to those who can – let’s make a difference now before it’s too late.

Being scared spurs us to action – to “Fight or Flight”. Let’s all join Henry and his young colleagues by fighting for the climate.

Courage Calls to Courage

Courage Calls to Courage

The beginning of a new year offers a chance to refresh and rethink. A time for setting new goals, for committing to new resolutions whether personal, professional or environmental. 2019 promises to be another challenging but pivotal year for the environment, with increasingly dire warnings emerging from the IPCC report and the COP24 the Climate Change Summit in Katowice that, unless we all act fast – on a global level – we will be “the generation that blew it”, as the Prime Minster of Fiji Frank Bainimarama put it. As outgoing chair of COP23, his opinion matters and it echoes the sentiments expressed by many world leaders at this crucial time for the climate. António Guterres, UN Secretary General, intervened during the summit with an impassioned plea as the talks became distracted by countries (including Russia and the US) trying to downgrade the scientific advice contained in the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report.

We’re running out of time”, he told his audience in Poland. “To waste this opportunity would compromise our last best chance to stop runaway climate change. It would not only be immoral, it would be suicidal.”

 Words – however impassioned – are, however, just words. As I sat down to write this article in the cold grey days of January I am reflecting on ‘deeds and words’ – on discussion, debate and talk versus calls to action. All around us the tone, tenor and content of political discourse is in decline. Insults have given way to harassment and hostility – we seem to have lost our leaders, our statesmen and woman in favour of factions, side taking and name calling.

The dichotomy between action and words was famously summed up by the phrase Deeds not Words, coined by Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) – better known as the Suffragettes. It was a rallying cry that lead to extraordinary acts of political subversion and violence (and, in some cases, extreme physical violence). The Suffragettes engaged in a sustained, well planned and often potentially life-threatening campaign of disruption which ranged from smashing windows, letter bombs, arson attacks in churches, physical attacks on MPs (Winston Churchill was attacked with a horse whip and Asquith had an axe thrown at him – it missed but cut the Irish MP John Redmond on the ear!). This aspect of Suffragette history is controversial. Forcing us to view these often aristocratic, straight-laced Victorian women in a whole new light. Not just placard bearing, hat wearing ‘ladies’ dressed in long white dresses and petticoats with sashes, but bomb throwing radicals – some would say terrorists. It’s not comfortable.

The Suffragettes were on the receiving end of state sponsored violence in return. The harsh regime of force feeding, involving holding down a woman against her will and forcing a feeding tube up her nose, led to illness and, in some cases, hastened an early death. Some received multiple prison sentences and multiple force feedings.

This violence split the suffrage movement and some historians have argued it actively delayed the granting of the vote. It is interesting that the only female statue in Parliament Square – erected this year and funded in part by the Centenary Action Group – is of Millicent Fawcett, leader of the peaceful Suffragists who campaigned without violence for the vote. Ironically her banner bears the famous phrase “Courage calls to Courage everywhere” a quote taken from a speech in 1920 marking the violent death of Emily Davidson, a committed suffragette, killed by the King’s horse at 1914 Epson Derby. So, while we all remember the Suffragettes, our public commemoration is of a Suffragist.

Would women have got the vote without the Suffragettes? Probably – eventually. But the wider question is “Is there ever a justification for civil disobedience in the name of a pressing cause?” A current parallel in my mind is the formation and actions of Extinction Rebellion, a new global climate action movement dedicated to non-violent civil disobedience in order to bring the climate crisis to the fore and to put pressure on government to take action. The founders are committed, mild mannered, passionate academics who are totally convinced that the only way to change views is to protest in a way that causes maximum disruption without endangering life. The campaign is housed by Rising Up which describes itself as ‘a new organisation aiming to be a social movement’.

What intrigues me about both Extinction Rebellion and the Suffragettes is the link between direct action and change. Over the Channel the Gilets Jaunes are calling for change with violence and destruction and (in another ironic twist) protesting against fuel duty increases designed to reduce carbon emissions.  Here the Extinction Rebellion protestors sit down on bridges singing. Breaking the law – yes, being violent – no. The day I joined the protest the arrests were conducted with courtesy and civility on both sides: those I spoke to young and old, students, pensioners, farmers, academics all felt a little nervous but no less determined that their actions were essential to raising the profile of the campaign. Fortunately, they were not facing the prospect of force feeding, just a slightly uncomfortable night in a cell. The only problem was the police ran out of vans and officers, so the arrests dried up long before the protestors determination gave out.

These acts of peaceful resistance and Millicent Fawcetts memorable words are a far cry from the aggression and intolerance we see all around us as the Brexit debate and process in all its forms spirals out of control. Perhaps now it is time to take stock.

Courage calls to Courage and we need to take peaceful, non-direct action to call out the bigotry, the intolerance and the anger that is souring our politics. Now is the time for Deeds not Words and for us all to use our individual and collective skills, knowledge, experience, influence and energies in whatever way we can to prevent global catastrophe on an unprecedented scale in humankind’s existence.  If IPCC scientists are to be believed, we really are running out of time to save the planet. As 2019 dawns I know one of my new year resolutions will be to take action and I promise to keep you updated on my progress!

A version of this article first appeared in The Messenger ( Manchester Law Bulletin)

The time to Act is Now

The time to Act is Now

September for many often feels like a new beginning, perhaps its something to do with the ‘back to school’ start of college or University feeling that so many of us have had, or experience with our children or grandchildren. However, this autumn sees many of our returning school students focusing on something other than studying.

Millions of young people across the world are preparing for a global mass strike for the climate calling on all of us to support them and holding world leaders, CEOs, lawyers, bankers, teachers and trade unionists alike to account. Led by the extraordinary Greta Thunberg, the Youth Climate Strike movement, and Fridays for the Future, have issued us a challenge – join them, stand up and be counted. These engaged passionate and angry young people have been awakened by the realisation that time is really running out.

Personally, I would call on everyone to take to the streets and join this strike with a purpose and to help to force change globally and for the benefit of all humanity. There are still some who deny the impact of global heating but the evidence this summer, with forest fires across Europe, the funeral for Okjökull Iceland’s first glacier lost to climate change, and extremes of weather here at home prove, if proof were needed, that it is real and here to stay.

Totemic figures like Greta Thunberg and Chris Packham draw attention to this issue and are calling on us to listen to them and look to the evidence. However, we shouldn’t just rely on them to urge us to take action when hundreds of scientists have given us the evidence that the time to act is now.

So, what can you do? The first obvious thing is to join the Climate Strike on 20th September. However, if you do not wish to or cannot join the strike here are some other ways you that can show your support:

· Use the Climate Strike Week 20-27th September to raise the issue within your workplace or community, hold an event or help         support an environment charity.

· Join the mass petitions calling for Local Authorities to declare meaningful Climate Emergencies and then take action and put in place policies to implement that – from recycling to Clean Air Zones.

· Join your local XR group who are working with local authorities on how to implement Climate Emergency policies

· Encourage the organisation you work for to commit to being Carbon Neutral – starting with a commitment to buying green energy

· Introduce more plant-based meals into your diet and reduce your consumption of mass produced meat – eat local, eat sustainably.

· Ban plastic of all kinds from the office

· Car share, walk to work, take public transport wherever you can

These are all small steps that individually make only a small difference but if Greta and her fellow students have taught us anything it is that small steps taken together can create a global impact.

No more excuses, summer is over and it is Time to Act.