Eight Fellows of the British Academy respond to climate activism tactics

1 Oct 2019

What do the country's leading humanities and social sciences scholars think about the growing movement for climate action? Eight Fellows of the British Academy from a range of different disciplines consider how best to answer the difficult question of what we should be doing about climate change:

Professor Harriet Bulkeley, Professor of Geography, Durham University

Individual action will mean little if the conditions within which we make choices about our everyday lives are not also changed.

What does it mean to act on climate change? Usually the idea of climate activism conjures two images – one of the public protest, of people taking to the streets to petition governments or blockading the carbon arteries of our societies, and the other of the concerned citizen weighing up the carbon and financial costs of air travel, plastic use, eating meat and so forth. Yet much of the most effective climate action is to be found elsewhere, in the collective actions of cities, communities, faith-based groups, even businesses and financiers. Often experimental and below the radar, it is in these spaces of hope that much of the power of climate activism is to be found. Equally importantly, climate activism means holding those with the power to make big differences to account – be it government or business, our employers or those who hold our pension funds. Individual action will mean little if the conditions within which we make choices about our everyday lives are not also changed. Taking climate action means we also have to open our imaginations to new kinds of future – read a climate fiction book, watch a climate movie, engage with artists or a local museum to start creating new forms of meaning and identity for a low-carbon good life. 

Professor John Broome FBA, Emeritus White's Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Oxford

What can we as individuals do about climate change? First, we can reduce our emissions of greenhouse gas. The means are well known: eat less meat, turn the thermostat down, fly less, and so on. These changes are definitely beneficial, because each individual’s emissions cause significant harm around the world. However, these individual efforts go only a tiny way towards controlling the menace of climate change. Too few of us will make the effort, and reducing emissions requires big changes in our national infrastructure. Only governments have the resources to control the menace. They can rebuild the infrastructure, and they have powers of taxation and regulation to make everyone reduce their emissions. Our governments have to act.

Yet they do not. Greenhouse gas emissions and the global use of fossil fuels are still growing. The world’s governments are failing the world’s people. It therefore falls to us as individuals to make our governments act; this is a more vital duty even than reducing our own emissions. Voting is one way to influence our governments. But in elections, climate change generally gets submerged by local concerns. Moreover, democracy has ceased to function properly in many countries. Many of us are now governed by unprincipled egotists, supported by a noisy and aggressive political process. To have a chance of making our governments act as they should, we have to be more aggressive and shout louder than the rest.

Extinction Rebellion has accepted this responsibility. Civil disobedience is an effective means of disrupting familiar life. It demonstrates that life cannot continue in its familiar ways. We should honour those who are brave enough to stand up to governments. They are trying to protect our future.

A row of protesters in the bottom right corner of the image, wearing masks and holding protest signs, facing police and onlookers in the top left corner of the image.
Activists from the Extinction Rebellion temporarily block the A23 at Lewisham Station. Photo by Ollie Millington / Getty Images.

Professor Ann Phoenix, Professor of Education, Institute of Education, University of London

For those who deny climate change, the last year has been difficult. The media have stopped treating climate change as a distant, debatable threat and linked distressing global events into a frightening whole. Why? Largely because of increased climate change activism and two currents. First, Greta Thunberg’s determined ethical commitment has encouraged the mobilisation of school children around the world to lead their families and friends into behaviour change. Second, Extinction Rebellion’s direct peaceful action has disrupted notions of life as usual in the face of global climate change emergencies. Of course, this activism is recent, while people subject to climate change catastrophes have long organised in opposition. But the point is that earthly survival depends on climate change activism from all of us.

Professor Marilyn Strathern, Emeritus Professor of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge

We all live at different times. The temporalities of peace-time policy making fall behind the unprecedented pace of ecological changes: hurtling at diverse speeds, some we see, most we don’t. How to see anything at all?

Actually planning to disrupt people going about their daily business: as an Extinction Rebellion novice, my hesitation over alienating support came from another time-scale. A long history of protest had already happened; last October, Extinction Rebellion emerged to up the stakes to peaceful civil disobedience. You have to be on other timelines to find their tactics abrasive. But that is also a resource Extinction Rebellion have seized – disruption now (holding up traffic, occupying public spaces), not targeting people but deploying their inconvenience to bring home the ‘inconvenience’ of catastrophe.

Professor Robert O. Keohane FBA, Professor of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University

Elite scientists do not create social movements, and these movements do not take the form that elite scientists might prefer.

Climate change is an existential crisis that has not yet generated a commensurate social and political response. In the United States, climate deniers include the President and most members of his political party. Although advances in science and technology render zero-emissions electricity grids and prosperous low-emissions economies feasible within this century, such systemic changes will be disruptive and will generate strong opposition from established interests. Political opposition and inertia often thwart even incremental measures such as emissions taxes.

What has been lacking is a mass social movement, including public protests. We may now be seeing the beginnings of such a movement, symbolised by Greta Thunberg in Sweden, the ‘Green New Deal’, or ‘Extinction Rebellion’. 

Elite scientists do not create social movements, and these movements do not take the form that elite scientists might prefer. Driven by emotion and often imbued with political ideology, participants in social movements may oppose practical solutions or propose unrealistic policy measures. Never mind. Without a strong social movement for climate change policy, the earth will continue to be endangered. We need to work together. 

A protester waving the Extinction Rebellion flag, with a crowd of protesters in the background.
An Extinction Rebellion campaigner waves a flag in Hyde Park, April 2019. Photo by Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

Professor Melissa Leach, Director of the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex

If climate change activism can remain inclusive and peaceful, promoting climate justice and opening up a politics of hope, then bring it on.

Climate change poses existential threats to the planetary life support systems on which we all depend. Its effects are already felt profoundly around the world, with those who are already vulnerable and marginalised suffering most. Poverty, inequality, social conflict and displacement are already worsening, and will worsen further, under unchecked climate change. Both science and everyday experience on this are incontrovertible. We have seen high-level global and national policy commitments to address climate change, yet these have failed to produce enough real action. Addressing climate change requires system-level transformations in how we live, consume, produce, use energy and move around. Technologies can help, but at heart these transformations are political. They require a shift in the political-economies that support fossil fuels, forest burning, climate-damaging agriculture and more, and in the politics of knowledge that enable climate change denialism or claims of ‘other priorities’. This is a politics that must extend beyond documents and negotiating chambers to reach the ground, uniting governments, businesses and citizens in alliance for change. This vital climate change politics has sorely lacked momentum, and often been blocked.

This is why we should applaud the vibrant, creative displays of determined protest and civil disobedience that we are now seeing by climate activists worldwide, in calling governments and big business to step up and take radical action. This is a politics led by people, many of them young, enacting direct democracy, demanding system change and bringing uncomfortable realities to power. It is overdue, and welcome. Yet, this welcome comes with some notes of caution. Climate emergency and catastrophe offer compelling tactical framings, but also risk justifying top-down ‘solutions’ and eco-authoritarian governance that further marginalise and dispossess. Rebellious tactics make a splash, but risk overspilling into violence and division. If climate change activism can remain inclusive and peaceful, promoting climate justice and opening up a politics of hope, then bring it on. 

Professor David Livingstone FBA, Professor of Geography and Intellectual History at Queen's University Belfast 

One of the hopeful lessons to be learned from the spirit that animates climate change activists is the reassertion of human agency in the face of environmental challenges. Ever since the time of Hippocrates, students of climate and society have routinely depicted human life and culture as determined by the forces of climate. In the early 20th century, this impulse reached a new pitch, giving succour to disturbing racial and imperial projects. While it seemed to go into abeyance in the middle decades of the century, there are signs that it is rearing its ugly head once again. Patterns of health, wealth and warfare are frequently attributed to the vicissitudes of the weather. In these circumstances, affirming human agency is vital to effecting social change. The pressing moral question is: what tactics are appropriate to achieve this end?

Professor Henrietta L Moore FBA, Founder & Director, Institute for Global Prosperity

The best chance of driving radical transformation does indeed begin with our oldest technology, language, but we will need to hone it far more wisely if we want to create the kinds of transformations we so urgently need.

As humans, language is our oldest, most adaptive and most enduring technology. So we might sit up and pay attention as we segue from climate change, via climate crisis, to climate emergency. The declaration of a state of emergency is an achievement in itself, and its instantiation a major accomplishment of youth activism around climate. However, as established institutions hail young leaders, draw them into their spaces of power, and appear to heed them (while others do not), there is both hope and extreme anxiety. The latter generated, at least in part, by the specific deployment of language to occlude the real power of its workings. First, the realisation / declaration of emergency is only the first step. None of our world leaders, whether their ears flap open or remain firmly closed, have done anything transformational as yet!

A cooler appreciation finds that our capacities and enthusiasm for describing viable paths to profoundly different, prosperous futures seems still beyond our political and cultural capabilities. The delineation of such paths would challenge the core beliefs that came out of the European Enlightenment, and would thus threaten existing power centres, as well as financial interests. Our recognition of emergency is so far doing little more than encouraging us to improve the status quo, to get back below two degrees, to explore forms of incrementalism that do not presuppose radical solutions. The reason lies partly in the very term ‘climate emergency’. For it is not the climate that subsists in a state of emergency, but the planet. Using the phrase planetary emergency would turn attention immediately to the fact that reducing anthropogenic emissions is no longer sufficient, we need to regenerate the planet’s resources. This form of regeneration would not, of course, be a going back but a moving forward into non-linear and emergent states of uncertainty. From this perspective, it is neither the climate nor the planet that inhabits a state of emergency, but rather ourselves and our sclerotic social, economic and political institutions. So as the youth activists recognise, the best chance of driving radical transformation does indeed begin with our oldest technology, language, but we will need to hone it far more wisely if we want to create the kinds of transformations we so urgently need.

Fellows of the British Academy are elected on the basis of outstanding scholarship in any branch of the humanities and social sciences. The views expressed by our authors on the British Academy blog are not necessarily endorsed by the Academy but are commended as contributing to public debate.


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