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Experiencing Firsthand Failures of UN Climate Politics, I Realized Civil Disobedience Only Route Left

I was arrested at London City Airport because only a mass uprising in defence of life can counter mass death

The author, Nathan Williams, is removed by police as climate change action group Extinction Rebellion staged a protest at London City Airport during the fourth day of demonstrations on October 10, 2019 in London, England. Climate change activists have gathered to block access to various government departments as they launch a two week protest in central London. (Photo: Peter Summers/Getty Images)

The author, Nathan Williams, is removed by police as climate change action group Extinction Rebellion staged a protest at London City Airport during the fourth day of demonstrations on October 10, 2019 in London, England. Climate change activists have gathered to block access to various government departments as they launch a two week protest in central London. (Photo: Peter Summers/Getty Images)

It’s really straightforward. We have to stop burning fossil fuels. The alternative is a hellscape planet and mass extinction.

We’ve tried slowing the growth of carbon use through every lawful means possible. But no election, no international agreement, no petition, no amount of green investment or organising has managed to slow—let alone stop—the inexorable rise in carbon pollution. Civil disobedience is the last route we have left as citizens to force the action that might prevent catastrophe.

For four years I worked for a climate NGO, travelling from London to New York and Paris to work with the world’s biggest pension funds who were investing in clean energy—and fossil fuels. There was no contradiction investing in both they said. They had a financial duty to maximise profits, and the market would squeeze out fossil energy in favour of clean energy. When it did, the money would follow the market. The market would tell them when to stop destroying the planet. The market would fill the gap where morality, conscience and principle should lie.

"Civil disobedience is truly a last resort. Everything else has failed."

I worked for a time with the UN office that led the drafting of the Paris agreement—the UNFCCC. They obsessed over mobilising private capital to fund clean energy. They talked little about limits, reductions or fossil fuels. Incredibly the words “fossil fuels” are not mentioned once in the Paris agreement. It often felt like UN leaders would prefer to believe the crisis had materialised in a vacuum. The UNFCCC also instructed us to steer clear from talking about a new regime for climate reparations for the global south. Too difficult. As if justice for those who have died and the deaths of poor people to come are an obstacle to climate action rather than the dark and urgent heart of climate politics. In the end, the Paris text on reparations fell back on unfulfilled promises made two years previously in Warsaw.

Climate crisis as a technocratic not political challenge

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I left that job in disgust a month before the agreement was signed. Disgust at the meek leadership and the cognitive dissonance that instructs international climate policy. There is an unspoken mantra that guides these talks and contributes to its failure, and that is the notion that you can’t confront people. You can’t tell the truth about culpability, or talk about the corruption, power, ego and greed feeding the planetary crisis. The crisis is treated as a technocratic challenge rather than a political, moral, and criminal one. We need everyone they say. The fossil fuel industry must be part of the solution. Clearly we don’t need everyone. We especially don’t need an industry that spent decades and billions funding the denial that has plunged the biosphere into chaos. If we need them anywhere it is in The Hague.

In response to climate disillusionment many fall back on lifestyle changes. I did. But a system problem can’t be solved by individual behaviour change. My disillusionment culminated in my arrest on Thursday October 10th at London City Airport as part of the Extinction Rebellion protests.

"We exist in the midst of planetary tragedy. A tragedy that demands we face the truth and ask the hardest questions about how we now must live."

Civil disobedience is truly a last resort. Everything else has failed. More fossil fuel has been burned in the last 30 years than in all of human history before then. And this failure is manifesting itself in record heat, floods, droughts, storms and the unravelling of the Arctic ecosystem, with consequences for the entire planet. What else are we supposed to do? The truth is that even this burst of civil disobedience is 30 years too late. The planet has over-heated 1.1°C since the industrial revolution and the chances of restricting average global heating to 1.5°C—as the UN recommends—is now vanishingly small. Limiting it to this level requires the immediate end to the building of new fossil fuel infrastructure and the winding down of some existing fossil fuel infrastructure. Under our current economic and political paradigm this is a fantasy. Many scientists’ think 2 degrees is the realistic floor of ambition, which means the best case scenario is that things are going to get nearly twice as bad as they are today.

But things are likely to get a lot worse than that. The Bank of England says the investment plans of the finance sector have the planet on track for 4°C of heating. While we can’t know the precise carrying capacity of a 4°C world, a number of prominent scientists have estimated the climate system at that level of heating would be in the throes of such upheaval that the earth could support only 500 million to 1 billion people. That’s upwards of 6.5 billion deaths. What else to describe this as but an extermination? This is not to mention the thousands of other species already being decimated by our extinction economy. Mammalian and insect life is in freefall. The sky is emptying of birdsong. Life in the oceans is being snuffed out. Unexplained mass death is the norm. The largest natural structure on Earth will soon be dead.

We exist in the midst of planetary tragedy. A tragedy that demands we face the truth and ask the hardest questions about how we now must live. A tragedy that demands we summon the courage to face down extermination and rise up in defence of life and a living planet for all future beings.

Nathan Williams

Nathan Williams is a UK-based climate activist and climate communications specialist

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