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The Global Extinction Rebellion Begins

Activists in the UK are channeling their horror about the climate emergency into a global movement for survival.

Singers perform at the Extinction Rebellion rally in London, England, on October 31, 2018.

Part of the Series

Dr. Gail Bradbrook, a mother of two boys, has seen enough of her government’s complicity in pumping increasing amounts of CO2 and methane into an already overburdened atmosphere.

A professor of molecular biophysics, her deep understanding of science has led her to confront the existential crisis facing humans. Acting on her love for her children and the disrupted world that is being left to them, she has channeled her horror about this crisis into action.

Dr. Bradbrook co-founded the group Rising Up!, which is now helping to organize the Extinction Rebellion, a movement composed of several thousand people across the UK that is using nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience to demand action on our climate emergency.

On October 31, more than 1,000 of them blocked Parliament Square in London, launching their mass civil disobedience campaign. They issued a “Declaration of Rebellion” against the UK Government for its inaction.

A “rebellion” might sound extreme, but given the times, it is not. This moment has been long in the making for Dr. Bradbrook. Truthout asked what compelled her to the point of fomenting a rebellion against her government. Was it the climate crisis, or government inaction?

“Something deeper,” Dr. Bradbrook replied. “A lifetime of a deeper knowing that something isn’t right…starting at age nine, a longing to be part of the change process and a ridiculous nerdy side that is always asking why? Why is [the state of the planet] like this?”

Bradbrook devoted herself to learning about economics and theories of change. She knew the system had to be changed before it killed us all, but for nearly a decade she repeatedly failed in her attempts to inspire or ignite a mass civil disobedience movement.

“So in 2016 I went on a deep retreat to address personal anxiety and to pray for guidance,” she explained. When she returned, Dr. Bradbrook galvanized the Extinction Rebellion.

Her online call to action is a critical overview of the extent the climate crisis and should be mandatory viewing for everyone. It has gone viral. The Extinction Rebellion is taking hold in the UK.

“The social model of power says that government and institutions don’t have power — we afford them power by our obedience to them, hence the social contract,” she told Truthout. “It’s time to break that. I believe our biggest responsibility right now is to step forward in acts of peaceful civil disobedience.”

“Based on the science,” reads the group’s website, “we have ten years at the most to reduce CO2 emissions to zero, or the human race and most other species are at high risk of extinction within decades.”

Her statement loosely references a recent UN report warning that humanity has only a dozen years to take dramatic actions in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (1.5C), or face catastrophic impacts.

In order to create a political crisis, Dr. Bradbrook believes mass civil disobedience must involve roughly three percent of her country’s population. She believes it’s possible to build such a coalition, because the kind of changes that Extinction Rebellion is advocating for would ultimately benefit everyone. The by-products of forcing governments around the world to take drastic actions to mitigate the climate crisis at hand are a more beautiful Earth, deeper connections and less frenetic lives.

“I think that the changes needed will also resolve many other issues we are facing,” Bradbrook explained. “That is why I call for those working in other fields to join this movement…there is a time for mass civil disobedience to change the system and I feel it has arrived.”

Lizia, who described herself to Truthout as a 20-year-old apprentice from Southeast London, said she joined Extinction Rebellion because she had always been moved by the suffering of our planetary citizens and the planet itself.

“What’s harder to swallow is when the suffering is needless and preventable,” she said. “Extinction Rebellion seems to me a culmination of everything I have fought for.”

Describing the sixth mass extinction as “unlike any other injustice I have protested against,” Lizia feels her government has been “apathetic and neglectful towards life” and believes they are actively supporting the slow annihilation that we are experiencing, “all in the name of greed and extremely short-sighted ‘benefits’ such as financial gain or political brownie points. I not only have a moral objection to their conduct, this is a fight for survival.”

The Declaration

During their action on October 31st in London, Extinction Rebellion sent out a press release, which read in part:

The disruption we have caused today is nothing to the destruction that is being unleashed by our leaders’ criminal inaction on climate and ecological breakdown. Just yesterday a WWF report announced that humanity has wiped out 60 percent of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles since 1970, yet Philip Hammond MP entirely neglected to mention climate breakdown in his budget. Our politicians have failed us. We must take our future into our own hands.

Today we pledge, in accordance with our consciences, and with a clear duty to our children; our communities; this nation and planet; a non-violent rebellion on behalf of life itself and against our criminally negligent government. The abject failure to protect citizens and the next generations from unimaginable suffering brought about by climate breakdown and social collapse is no longer tolerable.

We will not stand idly by and allow the ongoing destruction of all that we love. Our hearts break and we rage against this madness. We have both a right and duty to rebel in the face of this tyranny of idiocy, of this planned collective suicide. Join us.

George Monbiot, long-time climate change and environmental journalist for The Guardian spoke at the action, as did MP Caroline Lucas, Green Party MEP from South West England Molly Scott Cato, and 15-year-old activist Greta Thunberg, who is currently breaking Swedish law by refusing to go to school due to inaction on the climate.

More than a thousand people blocked the road in front of Parliament for the launching of the rebellion, and conscientious protectors of the Earth locked themselves onto each other in the middle of the road. Thousands of others supported the rebellion online and pledged future arrest and involvement in a series of actions planned for November.

Demands from the group include demanding the UK government tell the truth about the ecological emergency upon us, enact legally binding policies to reduce carbon emissions to net-zero by 2025, and create a national Citizens’ Assembly to oversee the changes needed as part of creating a functional democracy.

Extinction Rebellion describes the British government’s position towards our crisis as “criminal inaction.”

“Even the Most Optimistic Predictions Are Dire”

Dr. Bradbrook’s presentation outlines many of the basic facts of the climate crisis, and underscores how bleak our situation truly is.

After discussing the imperative to grieve what is happening, she outlines the over-conservative nature of much of the climate science most governments and mainstream media rely upon. She quotes Professor Hans Schellnhuber, who was the head of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and the senior advisor to Pope Francis, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and the European Union: “Climate change is now reaching the end-game…the issue is the very survival of our civilization.”

Discussing non-linear temperature increases, Dr. Bradbrook spells out how Earth can easily tip into a “hothouse state” and remain there, considering the fact that there is already only a meager five percent chance of keeping global warming to 2°C. Yet even the goal of preventing the planet from warming more than 2°C is now acknowledged by most scientists as being an outdated politically influenced goal, with the real goal being more in the realm of limiting warming to 1.5°C, if not even 1°C, which we have already surpassed.

Of the sixth mass extinction event already well underway, Dr. Bradbrook outlines how one in four mammals, one in eight birds, one third of all the world’s amphibians and 70 percent of the world’s assessed plants are already an endangered species, and how a 2018 study of British mammals showed one in five could be extinct within a single decade.

“I don’t personally know how to deal with the grief from all of this, when I think about the specifics,” she says.

In her presentation, Dr. Bradbrook discusses a 2017 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that showed that there is a one in 20 chance that the 2.2 trillion tons of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere could cause an existential warming threat (meaning it could cause the extinction of humans) if Earth’s temperature warms to 5°C or greater, which it may very well do at current trajectories.

“It is equivalent to a one-in-20 chance the plane you are about to board will crash,” one of the authors of the study has said. “We would never get on that plane with a one-in-20 chance of it coming down but we are willing to send our children and grandchildren on that plane.”

This kind of warming would lead to loss of humans on a mass scale. Yet Dr. Bradbrook points out that governmental responses are nowhere near proportional to the amount of danger we face.

In fact, in some ways, they’re going backward. In the UK, the government has scrapped support for onshore wind, killed off the flagship green home scheme, sold off the green investment bank, watered down the incentive to buy a greener car, ditched the green tax target, and refused tidal power, among other regressive actions.

Meanwhile, London’s Heathrow Airport has approved a third runway that will increase the airport’s emissions by 7.3m tonnes — the carbon equivalent of more than the country of Cyprus. Fracking is tax subsidized, even though an increase in global methane emissions has been linked to fracking. Dr. Bradbrook’s presentation underscores how the UK is experiencing its worst period of environmental policy in 30 years.

“The scope of the crisis shows starkly just how massively our governments have failed us,” Lizia told Truthout of this aspect of the crisis.

“I have heard stories from generations above about retirement pensions, adequate healthcare, easy access to higher education, owning houses and vehicles… but in my own short lifetime I have witnessed spiraling desperation and consequent emotional detachment, apathy and abuse in the people around me from the failing of many vital services,” she said. “What on Earth will the result be to sit back and let those in charge handle an issue of this magnitude?”

And in the US, under the Trump administration, the situation is far worse.

Dr. Bradbrook’s presentation shows that the first IPCC report was in 1990, which was 28 years ago. The UN, even back then, warned us to keep global temperatures from reaching 1°C (above a late 19th century baseline temperature) or face societal collapse. Global temperatures are currently at 1.1°C, and will likely reach a 1.5°C increase within a decade from now. Carbon dioxide levels are now 60 percent higher than they were in 1990, and are still rising, as are methane levels.

“We have to conclude that conventional methods of dealing with climate change have failed,” Dr. Bradbrook says. “Governments have failed to implement the wide-scale changes that only they have the power to implement. And environmental organizations have failed to pressure governments enough to implement these changes.”

She then shares a quote from Dr. Kate Marvel of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, who is studying human activities effect on the climate and what we can expect in the future.

“To be a climate scientist is to be an active participant in a slow-motion horror story,” Dr. Marvel has written. “We are inevitably sending our children to live on an unfamiliar planet…. As a climate scientist, I am often asked to talk about hope. Particularly in the current political climate, audiences want to be told that everything will be all right in the end. Climate change is bleak, the organizers always say. Tell us a happy story. Give us hope. The problem is, I don’t have any.”

Dr. Marvel adds something that is worth quoting in full:

Hope is a creature of privilege….[T]he opposite of hope is not despair. It is grief. Even while resolving to limit the damage we can mourn. And here, the sheer scale of the problem provides a perverse comfort: we are in this together. The swiftness of the change, its scale, and inevitability binds us into one, broken hearts trapped together under a warming atmosphere. We need courage, not hope…Courage is the resolve to do well without the assurance of a happy ending.

Dr. Bradbrook is asking us to consider this ethical question: “What do you do when your government is actively promoting the gassing of the world and driving extinction events?”

Risking Everything

Truthout asked Dr. Bradbrook what she is willing to risk with her actions for the Extinction Rebellion.

“Everything. I don’t mean to sound melodramatic, but my life, if necessary,” she replied. “My freedom. The risk of ridicule. Though I also pray for protection for myself and my children and those around us.”

While she is not actively seeking out danger, Dr. Bradbrook said she is willing to risk “everything” because “the stakes are so high,” and went on to quote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who said, “If a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.”

She notes how environmental activists in other parts of the world are being killed on a regular basis, and said this: “I come from a place of deep privilege, which is another reason to step out of its comforting deadly embrace and offer service.”

Lizia felt similarly, but added another angle.

“I believe that the fate of our futures lie with our youth,” she said. “We must find a way to adequately educate them not just academically, but also equip them with the true life skills required for survival, and allow them the space to grow wild and passionate.”

Dr. Bradbrook believes we are all locked into a damaging individualism, a constant and personal asking of “what about me” and “what do I need” and “how can I feel better.” She believes this is precisely what must change in order to raise our consciousness.

“I feel the time has come to be fully initiated into our service, to give up hope as a drug for our hidden worries that we are suppressing. To fully face the grief of these times and to act accordingly is what we are called upon now, which means being willing to take risks,” she said.

Dr. Bradbrook believes it is now our responsibility personally to honor the Earth by “making changes in our relationship to her.”

“Our personal responsibility is to fully face this crisis at an emotional level, to be willing to hit the depths of grief and despair, and then to act accordingly,” she explained. “To stop having our lives be about us, because they aren’t. We are here, I believe, to serve life, to make of ourselves worthy ancestors once we die.”

20-year-old Lizia underscored Dr. Bradbrook’s comment in a poignant way. She told Truthout about how, while playing sports at school, she was taught that winning didn’t matter, only that you participated and had fun.

Now, winning is a life-or-death matter: “’Winning’ for me would be gaining some certainty that I will be able to grow old,” she said.

Dr. Bradbrook told Truthout that the actions of the rebellion must be disruptive, and they must be sacrificial. Recently, a major series of actions took place on November 12, and more are planned for November 17 at Parliament Square in London.

The Extinction Rebellion is being contacted daily by people around the world seeking to join, and is already in dialogue with groups from 15 countries, including the Climate Mobilization within the US.

When asked what she was willing to risk by joining the Extinction Rebellion, Lizia was blunt.

“My existence is at risk if I do nothing,” she said. “The lives of my siblings, my peers, everyone and everything I love are at risk if I do nothing. My friends are willingly being arrested, others are leaving education and ‘ruining their future prospects’ because – what future?”

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