About a twelve-minute walk away from Westminster is the MI5 building. On an ordinary day, one would pass by it without giving much thought. But today was different. A few hundred metres away from the building lay Extinction Rebellion’s latest climate strike. Among the scores of protestors stood a tall, cheerful old man with a sign that says “Ask me why I’m here. Happy to talk”. That man was David Ramsden. Awarded an MBE by the Queen in 2007 for “Services to wildlife”, David has spent over three decades working towards animal conservation. In 1988, he along with his partner Jaine founded the Barn Owl Trust: a charity working towards the conservation of owls.
Alarmed by the IPCC report in October of 2018, he plunged himself into climate research for the next five months. “The most alarming thing I’ve learned is how little time we have left.” He said,
“All of the problems we’ve faced, the increase in them getting worse is not linear. It’s exponential.”
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a United Nations body that assesses climate change. Last October they released a report that can be boiled down to the fact that “limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” Rattled by what he saw, he took action by leaving Devon to join the first International Extinction Rebellion in London in April.
Within a few weeks, he found himself on the Waterloo bridge protesting with hundreds of people. Like most others there, it was the first time he had taken part in civil disobedience. “We were just ordinary people really, who never imagined we would go out to break the law.”
But they did, and in David’s eyes, it worked. The Rebellion grabbed global attention as over 6000 activists blocked five bridges on the Thames on the very first day of the protest.
Full disclosure: when it comes to climate change, I was a pessimist, bordering on being a nihilist. There’s no doubt climate change is as real and as dangerous as it is made out to be, but I felt powerless about it. Hope seemed like a rare commodity, reserved for the idealists. I used to think, what good would my small acts of recycling do, when major oil companies have been plundering our planet’s resources for decades? When the world’s major banks fund these companies, what real hope is there for survival?
This is one of the reasons why the Rebellion intrigued me. Did they really have hope? Why would they take valuable time out of their lives to fight for a cause, if they didn’t believe they could win? The situation escalated when the authorities banned XR in London. Yet many defied the police and kept disrupting key areas of London, risking arrest from the police. For them, did it still seem worth it?
“I think it definitely is [worth it].” Said Albin, a medical student from Sweden, who joined came to London to join the rebellion. He showed up to Trafalgar Square on the last day of protests in a giant bird costume, along with hundreds of others at the steps of the National Gallery in an act of Civil Disobedience.
“The fact that they even put the Section 14 over the whole city, it only plays into our strengths. We’re only using our rights to be able to assemble peacefully and speak our cause. If the police were to arrest us to gather peacefully at Trafalgar Square and not do anything, that would only mean that more people would sympathise with our cause.” He said.
He received a Section 14 earlier for wearing the giant costume, and he seemed willing to get arrested for this cause. He believed this will only draw more supporters to his cause.
A lot of critics point fingers at developing nations like India and China’s rapid industrialisation as a leading cause of climate change. But Dr. Christelle Blunden disagreed with that notion. She along with some of her colleagues in the NHS were at the MI5 protest under the banner for “Doctors for XR”. Inspired by the thousand doctors who wrote an open letter to the Guardian in support of the Rebellion, she felt that the responsibility lay on developed nations like the UK and the USA.
“In this country, we exported the industrial revolution, therefore we have a moral responsibility to export the green revolution and try to lead the way in decarbonising.”
She said, “When we talk about China’s carbon footprint, we’re talking about things China is making for us. We should be looking at our import policies, about our environmental standards that we require for goods to be sold in this country. So I don’t buy it when people say that we can’t do anything because of India and China.”
Dr, Christelle has made a lot of sacrifices to save the planet. She used up over half of her annual leave on protests and had to pay for extra childcare to take care of her children, aged seven and four, while she took part in the rebellion. “It’s not particularly relaxing. I’ve been sleeping out in tents in the rain. On Monday night, my sleeping bag got wet all night. I’m not doing this for fun. (…) I miss my children this week. But I’m doing this for their future.”
Yet, she did not seem to have a lot of optimism for their future. “I’m doing this because I think it’s the right thing to do. I don’t know how hopeful to be. I can see that the UK government has listened to XR and the climate strikes.” She said, “I do have some hope and I definitely have moments of hope. If you ask me whether there’s hope if human beings will still be here by 2200 in a carbon-neutral society, I honestly can’t answer that.”
For Albin, civil disobedience seemed like the only possible solution to the lack of political willpower.
“I felt hopeless before I started getting involved in this movement, because when you start looking up the facts, you start to realise it’s not necessarily a technological problem that we’re facing, it is more of a political problem. This has proven through history to be the best way to achieve any sort of social change. Peaceful civil disobedience. That’s why I got involved. But now spending time with these beautiful people, sharing this vision, and working towards the same goal, and the movement is growing, I feel like we’re moving towards actually changing something in the system.”
Everyone who fights does so for a reason unique to others. While Christelle fights for the future of her children, David fights to protect the fauna he’s spent decades saving. He fights for the future of his grandchildren, two tots, with a third born this week. Despite the odds against him and the other protestors, he feels cautiously optimistic.
“Even though there isn’t any doubt about the science now, it’s hard to predict when society is gonna collapse. Our chances are really small. But as long as there is any chance, we have got to go for it. We have got to do everything we can. The biggest unknown is how people and governments are gonna respond.”
He does see some change in the way the climate crisis is being looked at by people, the media and the government. “Before the April Rebellion, climate change was talked about, but only by a very small portion of people. The BBC and ITV covered it really really well, and now so many more people are thinking about climate change.”
In response to the protests, the UK government in April declared climate an “environmental emergency”. India has grown its tiger population by over 33% in the past four years. “More people are talking about it [the climate crisis], and this is what we need.” David said, “We need our demands met. We can tell the truth, but we need governments to take the lead. We need leadership from government.”
At the end of this set of protests, my skepticism has swayed a little bit. The climate science reports show a bleak future, but it doesn’t draw an impossible picture. Extinction CAN be prevented. No change can be achieved if people aren’t willing to sweat for it. This Rebellion proves that plenty of people are willing to work hard to make sure that happens. People across generations can see the need to convince the government to act. Even on that account hope isn’t entirely a naive concept. Governments have shown signs of change. The conversation is getting louder. What power does “Big Oil” hold over those who are willing to fight? Who can stop those who would dare to hope?