England & Wales, Global, Ireland, Scotland Climate action and sustainable development, Covid-19

Restricting rebellion

As the most recent form of environmental activism looks to be curbed by new legal restrictions, we must question if now is really the time to ignore the voices calling for a more sustainable future by reforming the economy.

Environmental and social inequalities have been thrown into sharp relief by the Covid-19 crisis and there is evidence to suggest that there is a correlation between air pollution and mortality rates, disproportionately affecting those living in polluted areas, including many BAME populations. As a consequence, the government is facing legal challenges from the Good Law Project after Defra refused to review its strategy around coronavirus and clean air. As thoughts of ‘Green Recovery’ seem to be fading, it looks likely those most affected will continue to be marginalised.

This is not the first time that environmental activists have been branded as ‘criminals’ – though, with the accelerating rate of climate change, it seems possible that they may be the last. Extinction Rebellion is the latest in a long line of climate movements that have attempted to raise awareness of the devastating consequences of climate change through direct action. Some recent examples of climate movements that have found themselves on the wrong side of the law include several UK transition towns facing the prospect of eviction (look out for an upcoming article on this) as well as the ‘Heathrow 13’ who broke in and ‘locked on’ to the airport’s runway in order to highlight the impact that its proposed expansion will have on the surrounding ecosystem. These campaigners were ultimately given a six-week suspended sentence and were ordered to carry out community work after being found guilty of aggravated trespass.

Meanwhile, 77 Extinction Rebellion protestors were recently charged after blockading three Murdoch-owned printing presses as part of two-week-long demonstrations throughout the UK, sparking outrage in many across the political spectrum who claimed that this movement was seeking to inhibit freedom of press. There have been ongoing reports that the Prime Minister and Home Secretary have been considering the legal position of protestors, while in January, The Guardian found that counter-terrorism police in the south-east had classified the group as ‘extremist’ for their ideologies in a safeguarding guide published in November 2019.

In an earlier demonstration this month, more than 600 protestors were arrested for flouting social distancing rules and ignoring the police’s dispersal requests. A civil liberties group named Liberty stated that the right to a peaceful protest is being infringed upon, and that “environmental campaigners were targeted with pre-emptive arrest” and fines. Members of the group felt that the tactics being used by the police are re-framing the actions of Extinction Rebellion as a ‘public nuisance’ as opposed to ‘protest’. One of the group’s co-founders, Roger Hallam, was charged with alleged conspiracy to cause criminal damage in August and many media outlets have taken against the movement following this month’s press blockades.

When the Covid-19 crisis first hit, there was much optimism around the prospect of Green Recovery. There were proposals for new policies to support more sustainable ways of living, such as better infrastructure for active travel or divesting local authority pensions. Yet, as lockdown eased, the number of cars on the road has crept back up to normal levels over the past few months (after plummeting to 23% in March) while public transport usage remains at much lower levels due to viral transmission concerns. While many local authorities are already undertaking more sustainable initiatives (see our Sustainable Futures bundle), the tone of a recent round table discussing LGIU’s Sustainable Futures work was somewhat despondent – councils are aware of what needs to be done to combat climate change but have immeasurable challenges including budget pressures to overcome. Local government is not only bracing itself for the rumoured organisational shake-up in the autumn but also finds itself up against funding shortfalls, exacerbated by the pandemic and uncertainty of Brexit. It seems the sector will be stretched too thin to fulfil expectations of a Green Recovery whilst also delivering key and essential services.

Extinction Rebellion has lent its voice to a chorus of others calling for the government to put sustainability at the heart of its recovery plans, but as the number of redundancies grows and a second wave is thought to be imminent, it is understandable that the existential threat of climate change does not naturally sit at the forefront of people’s minds. Given the economic context, it seems unsurprising that the movement has ramped up its demonstrations over the past couple of weeks just as life appears to be returning to a quasi-normalcy.

While their actions have been divisive and the group continues to face legal challenges, it is undeniable that they are, at the very least, raising awareness of the dangers of climate change at a time when the consequences are becoming a reality for so many across the globe. Given the current rise in coronavirus cases perhaps everyone can appreciate how interconnected people’s lives are both with each other and nature; tackling climate change is no longer a question of choice but essential.

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