Activists are taking part in a "climate rebellion" on London's streets today, demanding the government takes urgent action on the worsening ecological crisis at a time when the issue has been pushed further down the agenda than usual because of Brexit.
The group behind the demos, Extinction Rebellion, caused quite a stir earlier this month when 11 semi-naked members interrupted a House of Commons Brexit debate with their backsides facing MPs and their hands glued to the glass of the public gallery.
Today, the non-violent UK-based grassroots environmental group is attempting to shut down some of London's busiest junctions including Marble Arch, Oxford Circus, Waterloo Bridge, Piccadilly Circus and Parliament Square, along with busy areas of other major cities including Berlin.
Several London roads are blocked to cars and lorries (with Waterloo Bridge turned into an impromptu garden and skate park, and a bright pink boat spotted in Oxford Circus), with the action due to continue over the coming days (and potentially weeks), according to the group. Members of the group also smashed the glass entrance of the oil company Shell's Waterloo headquarters, with the aim of having their case heard in the crown court, the BBC reported. Coordinated action is due to take place in 80 cities across 33 countries in the days ahead.
Waterloo bridge taken! The @ExtinctionR garden is forming... Skateboard ramp being built. Beautiful weather... Come for lunch @SomersetHouse @Sutton @RoyalOperaHouse @TheSavoyLondon it's beautiful! #ExtinctionRebellion pic.twitter.com/w7YUY4zEl0— Extinction Rebellion London Ⓧ (@LdnRebellion) April 15, 2019
Extinction Rebellion has previously shut down London bridges (an action that saw 85 members arrested in November) and poured hundreds of litres of fake blood outside Downing Street. Their non-violent tactics have won them the backing of scientists and academics, along with actor and activist Emma Thompson, the former Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams, and the 16-year-old climate change activist and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Greta Thunberg.
Emma Thompson has a very important message for you.— Extinction Rebellion Derby (@XRDerby) April 11, 2019
Now is the time for ordinary people to stand up and act now. We have to come together and save our home. We have to fight against extinction.
Come to London on the 15th of April.
Extinction Rebellion pic.twitter.com/mGNHxB8VUu
They've even been compared to the suffragettes for their willingness to break the law to protect the planet. "If you look back in time at other movements that have achieved significant levels of social change, they weren't having a popularity contest... they were just trying to achieve their aims," one of its key members, Clare Farrell, recently told the BBC's Beyond Today podcast. "Then afterwards everyone goes 'oh aren't they really good people, we'll make a statue of them', and stuff like that."
The public's thinking on disruptive protests often, Farrell says, is: "I'm really glad the suffragettes did what they did, but I shouldn't have to smash any windows or throw myself in front of the king's horse because they've all done that work for us... so we don't have to do that."
Extinction Rebellion's demands are threefold: governments must "tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency" and communicate clearly the urgency of the situation; to "act now to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025"; and for governments to "create and be led by the decisions of a Citizens' Assembly on climate and ecological justice".
I'm sorry that we have to take disruptive action – but climate change is an emergency.
Helen, 24, Extinction Rebellion activist
As the thousands-strong turnout on the capital's streets today highlights, Extinction Rebellion's core members are far from the only ones frustrated by the lack of political energy being expended on the climate and environment right now.
Helen, 24, from London, took the day off work to attend today's action and is part of the group blocking the roads surrounding Marble Arch.
"We want to cause disruption until the government meets with Extinction Rebellion and takes action towards the group's three demands. Until the government truly make steps towards these demands, the protests will continue. I understand it's annoying and I'm sorry that we have to take disruptive action – but climate change is an emergency and we need to start acting like it is. We have tried and will keep trying less disruptive methods like petitions and contacting MPs, but government isn't responding fast enough and non-violent direct action is proven to bring change. Ghandi and the civil rights movement before us proved that. I hope other Londoners can also understand that we are disrupting the city's traffic for all of our futures. But as a proper Brit, we're sorry for the inconvenience!
I recently got involved with Extinction Rebellion when I realised that the only way to combat the despair about this planet's future prospects is through activism. I've always been interested in environmental issues – people say it over and over but it really is the most important issue facing our generation and our planet. Climate change is racist in that it will disproportionately affect the global south who have emitted the least amount of pollution; it is also sexist in that women will be disproportionately affected. So for me, fighting climate change is also about fighting all kinds of social ill.
Despair never achieves anything, and people have made the impossible happen again and again – from the NHS to universal suffrage to civil rights. All these things seemed as impossible as being carbon neutral by 2025 seems to us now. But we can make the impossible happen. You just have to believe and act in hope, as cheesy as it sounds.
I'd encourage other people to come out and see what it's like for themselves. This movement is full of kind, passionate and dedicated people who will welcome you no matter your experience in activism – I've only been on two marches before – or knowledge on the subject. You can educate yourselves through free resources. If you're feeling hopeless or dispirited about current politics and the planet's future – channel that energy. Don't wallow. Do something with it. Surround yourself with people who have hope and you will feel more hope too."
Mariah, 28, a researcher in international development, took the day off work to provide legal support to members of the group who are arrested. She joined Extinction Rebellion three months ago.
"I'm concerned about our future. For a long time I thought we would see a solution from technology or from our governments but we haven’t and time is short. I no longer feel I can wait for others to take action or trust the government to do what’s necessary. Our planet is beautiful and extraordinary. We have no right to let selfishness and greed strip it of its assets. We still have time to preserve and recover if we act now. We can’t bring back species but we can protect what’s left and amend what’s fixable.
Brexit debates are saturating the media when climate breakdown should be at the top of the agenda.
Mariah, 28, Extinction Rebellion activist
Our aim is to bring attention to our cause and inform the public and government that we're willing to take direct and non-violent action for as long as necessary. Our numbers are growing and so is our resolve. We’re sorry for inconveniencing Londoners and we wouldn’t be doing this if we thought there was another option. Extinction Rebellion's actions during the Brexit debate were brilliant and brave. Brexit debates are saturating the media when climate breakdown should be at the top of the agenda."