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How to Create a Movement to Deal With the Climate Emergency

A movement must have the right demands to be effective

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The Extinction Rebellion movement brought the most critical issue that humanity faces into the limelight. This movement focused on non-violent civil disobedience, where thousands of people broke the law to put pressure on the government to take action against climate destruction.

The movement galvanised people into action and brought the impending crisis we face onto the front pages. This is fundamental to ensure the wider population appreciate just how dire the consequences are going to be.

The general population is detached from the issue. While the literature on climate destruction is overwhelming, to gain awareness people have to read the literature or watch documentaries on the problem.

A recent UN report on the destruction of biodiversity reinforces what we already know. Natural systems are collapsing, threatening our survival. At an intimidating 1800 pages, it’s not light and easily digestible, and unlikely to be read by a wide audience.

The Extinction Rebellion movement is important in communicating the issue in an accessible way. The language used has changed. Climate change is a neutral term, not really reflecting the dire situation we find ourselves in. Destruction, collapse and extinction have been the descriptors used. These descriptors better reflect the reality we’re facing.

The demands

What did the rebellion achieve?

The movement has three core demands:

  1. Tell the truth
    The government must tell the truth about the scale of the ecological crisis by declaring a climate emergency.
  2. Act now
    The UK must aim to hit net zero carbon emissions by 2025.
  3. Beyond politics
    The government must create a citizens’ assembly to hear evidence and devise.

I don’t believe the movement will make a substantial impact based on these aims because it’s demanding the wrong things. The core demand is that the government declares a climate emergency. The other demands stem from this root demand. If the government declared an emergency, the other demands could be realised.

However, there are two issues with this core demand. The first is to assume that the government has the ability or power to implement the change the movement seeks. Government is complicit in creating a structure that has led to the problem. Why do we think the current political framework now has the ability to deal with the climate emergency?

Government can’t be part of the solution as it is the embodiment of the problem.

The other issue is that this is an emergency, but it doesn’t feel like one. And if it doesn’t feel like an emergency it’s difficult to galvanise an effective response. The challenge we face is so difficult because it feels as if there isn’t a crisis occurring. The monstrous effects of climate catastrophe will only reveal themselves in the long term. Climate emergency doesn’t prompt an emotional response that other emergency situations would evoke because we can’t see the impacts. If we can’t see the impacts, its as if they aren’t happening.

In moments of emergency…

What characteristics are needed to bring about an effective response to an emergency?

The United States war effort during World War II is an example of a highly effective response to an emergency situation.

What was the problem?

The Axis Powers were driven by a desire to conquer the world. The United States had been resistant to join the war effort, but the unprovoked attack at Pearl Harbour by the Japanese changed everything. This was a declaration of war against the United States that awoke a sleeping giant.

The emergency had a common enemy.

The problem is crucial in any state of emergency. In this instance, the problem had a face. Propaganda could be created to personify the enemy as evil and threatening. The problem also had an army, this army had guns.

It felt like a threat in people’s minds because people could identify with the threat. That army represented a belief system that wanted to destroy a way of life. The problem created the reaction needed in times of emergency, in uniting an entire population against a common enemy.

The emergency had a clear vision of success.

This was to destroy the armies of the Axis Powers and force them into unconditional surrender.

This compelling vision of success led to an effective strategy.

The United States initiated total war. The American economy and society were directed solely towards the war effort. Decision making was based around the objective of defeating the Axis powers. Anything else was not considered of consequence.

To garner an effective response to an emergency, it is necessary to have certain requisites:

  • A common problem: uniting a population or group of people and acting as a threat each person can identify with.
  • A vision of success: a clear ambition/solution to a problem. This provides focus and clarity regarding decision making. The vision works to motivate as a shared ambition.
  • Strategy: provides direction to efforts and allows for effective decision making and an ability to prioritise actions against one another to achieve the vision of success.

Climate destruction through the lens of emergency

If the British Government were to declare an emergency, what would these requisites look like?

Firstly, it’s essential to identify the common problem.

The problem can be identified by asking, what is the effect of the problem? The effect is the destabilisation of a stable climate that allows humans and other species to live harmoniously. This is what is under threat. But climate destruction is an outcome. The cause is how our economic and social systems are arranged. Our way of doing things causes behaviour in people that is leading us to threaten stable climatic conditions and with it, our very existence.

The problem is the design of our economic and social systems. Psychologically, this is difficult to accept. How we do things is all we know. The economic and social systems shape our reality and our way of being. To acknowledge it is the economic and social systems inducing climate catastrophe will be hard for many to accept. It would also be difficult to foresee the government declaring an emergency on the system that gives it authority. It would essentially be declaring an emergency against itself.

What is the vision of success?

Extinction Rebellions demands don’t focus on changing the problem. Without acknowledging what the actual problem is it’s not possible to define an effective vision of success. Visualising this future state is central to creating a global movement. A vision would provide clarity and direction behind an unshakeable shared ambition.

What is the strategy?

No vision means no strategy. You can’t have one, without the other. Currently, global efforts to mitigate against climate catastrophe are incremental, and not guided by a unifying vision of a future state of affairs. Promoting small changes, but remaining on the path of business-as-usual will not bring the necessary transformation required.

Extinction Rebellions second demand demonstrates the importance of creating a vision of success that guides strategic decision making. If Britain was to achieve a net zero carbon economy by 2025, would it help solve the underlying issue?

It would be a remarkable achievement and would be a shining light for other countries to follow. But working in isolation won’t effectuate the change that is needed. Carbon emissions are only one part of the problem. The UN report on biodiversity loss suggests that while climate destruction does result in the extinction of species; the number one factor leading to extinction is habitat destruction.

The problem is a web of interconnected issues, that interact in complex ways. Each problem must be solved in unison. This requires a global effort. A global movement working together to realise a global vision of success.

A clash of ideas

It almost feels inevitable that we are hurtling towards a moment in time where there will be a clash of ideas. This moment in time is unique as it is clear that we must transform our way of doing things to guarantee our survival.

We have two choices. Our economic and social systems will either collapse due to the pressures we place on the natural world. Or we can transform our economic and social systems in an effort to stem the worst impacts of our current path. Regardless, change is going to happen

Throughout history, in any moment of fundamental change, there have been two distinguishable groups. Revolutionaries who instigate change. These instigators of change identify a problem in the current way of doing things. They recognise that in order to induce the changes that are necessary, it is essential to transform the current system.

This group meet resistance from the old order. Those with vested interests in the current way of doing things. Change threatens their power and influence, and so they resist the changes being instigated by the revolutionaries as they benefit from the status quo.

Even if the climate catastrophe threatens humanities existence, the revolutionaries will be met with resistance. Why do you think there is so much resistance to effectively deal with the impending threat? Because those in power know that it’s necessary to transform our current way of doing things to deal with the crisis.

People in power don’t tend to voluntarily give up that power. This situation will be no different.

The global movement to transform our way of doing things must catalyse change now before the effects of climate destruction become overwhelming.

As we progress further into the 21st century, the impacts of the climate crisis will become more aggressive. This will weaken the ability to galvanise a global movement. It’s vital that a movement united by a shared desire to transform our economic and social systems comes into existence now. Extinction Rebellion might just be the start of that global movement.