Having been an activist for 6 months now, as part of Doctors for Extinction Rebellion, I’ve heard my fair share of insults, though thankfully there have been many more “Thank yous”.
This is a brief list of questions I heard on TV and radio shows aimed at Extinction Rebellion activists, and the best answers I’ve yet heard. I’m sure there are more. The intent is to inform people curious about the movement, and to equip those in it against misinformation.
Is Climate change really that bad?
- Overall, the average global surface temperature have already risen by 1.1°C since pre-industrial times and it is accelerating. This might not sound like a lot, but even tiny changes in the Earth’s temperature can have huge impacts.
- If we simply keep burning fossil fuels in the way have, then within 80 years, the level of Carbon dioxide will be almost 2.5 times what it is now. The last time that occurred on Earth was 55 million years ago, when temperatures were 8C higher and there was no ice on the planet, so sea level was over 60 m above today’s level (Source: Grantham Institute at Imperial College London)
- Professor Stefan Bronniman, a leading climatologist says there is “no doubt left” amongst respectable scientists that man-made global heating is real.
- Big Tobacco paid doctors and scientists to lie about smoking. Fossil Fuel companies such as Exxon Mobil are doing the same, to make short term profit, at everyone else’s expense.
How will Climate affect Health?
- HEAT: The UK government has predicted that deaths from heatwaves will triple by 2050, as heatwaves get hotter, longer and more frequent. It will be much more severe for those in warmer countries.
- FLOODS: Hotter air carries more water vapour, so rainfall becomes more intense as the earth heats up. Trees which normally help to mop up water are being cut down and replaced by impermeable concrete. Overdevelopment plus global heating is a recipe for bigger and bigger floods.
- SEA LEVEL RISE. Sea-level rise occurs because warm water expands. Miami and Shanghai are 2 of the most vulnerable cities in the world (Best not to buy property there) and Bangladesh is one of the most vulnerable countries. This will lead to loss of property, insurance difficulties and internal migration.
- DISEASE: As the climate becomes warmer, disease spreading insects will move to new areas, carrying with them Dengue fever, Schistosomiasis, Chikungunya, West Nile virus, Malaria and Lyme disease. Some diseases alter their behaviour in new conditions, such as what happened with the Saiga Antelope in 2015. There was a huge die-off in Kazakhstan due to a change in behaviour of the Pasteurella bacteria, a usually ‘friendly’ bacteria carried in the nose. This was felt to be due to intense heat and humidity.
- AIR: Already air pollution contributes to the deaths of at least 110 people per day in the UK. This is felt to be linked to heart and lung disease. The case of Ella-Kissi Debrah in 2013 was felt to be due to high levels of Nitrogen Dioxide pollution due to vehicles, a case which is currently going through the UK courts.
- FOOD: The most worrying of them all is food insecurity. The EU commission already predict that we will lose 17% of our crop productivity by 2050 on our current trajectory. Anyone who’s ever owned a plant will understand what happens when they are overwatered or overheated. One of the biggest threats to our way of life is unpredictable mass crop failures. These have occurred before but there has always been another country where the crops have survived, so we import replacements. There is a real concern that this will happen in multiple countries at the same time. As the climate gets more and more unstable this century, it gets more and more common. When people can’t get food, existing tensions are magnified and violence is usually quick to follow.
- DESPAIR: If things don’t turn around rapidly, we will see a generation living with the reality of a climate that is past the point of no return. The combination of a growing sense of responsibility for the planet but with a powerlessness to change the inevitable will be a recipe for depression, anxiety and despair.
“But my country says it is leading the world.”
That’s what all governments say. It is part of the political game. Here are some reasons to maintain healthy cynicism.
- OUR GOVERNMENT MANIPULATES DATA : In the UK, we pay other countries to do most of our manufacturing then we blame them for the emissions. They get away with it because they used biased emissions figures, which don’t include aviation, shipping or imports, which they . quote in parliament. Per person in the UK we produce 23% more carbon than China (UK: 8.8 Tonnes/person/yr. China about 7.1 Tonnes/person/yr) using consumption data and almost 4 times more than India. It’s like going into next-door’s garden, using their barbecue to cook your dinner, then blaming them for the smoke.
- OUR GOVERNMENT HEAVILY SUBSIDISES FOSSIL FUEL EXTRACTION: The UK government says it is a world leader but it is Europe’s biggest fossil fuel subsidiser — It spends £10.5 billion per year of taxpayers money on fossil fuels. It is also the G7’s biggest importer of Carbon emissions.
- SOME COUNTRIES HAVE CAUSED MORE POLLUTION THAN OTHERS: Western countries have polluted most in history. We have benefitted from decades of colonialism, resource theft and historical pollution to produce good infrastructure; good roads, sewerage systems, rail networks, buildings etc etc. Asking that we just forget the past is like inheriting a mansion and refusing to pay more council tax.
- OUR COUNTRY HAS A STRONG TRADITION OF LEADERSHIP: The UK was one of the first countries to ban slavery, it has the best health service in the world according to the Commonwealth Fund. We have a history of leading the way on important issues. We should do the same here.
- WE NEED TO LOOK AFTER THE MOST VULNERABLE: The people who suffer most will be those in the poorest countries. The poorest poor. They are the ones least responsible and the ones who are suffering most now, and will suffer most in the future. A measure of the health of a society is how much it looks after its most vulnerable; those in low lying countries or closest to the equator.
- OUR LEADERSHIP WILL HELP OTHER COUNTRIES CHANGE FASTER: Environmental care and concern is growing internationally and exponentially. No one wants to see their way of life permanently destroyed by climate change. As soon as one country moves, others will follow. The people of the world will demand it.
- SOMEONE HAS TO DO IT: If everyone waits for everyone else, we all lose.
“Why don’t protestors just tell the government instead of causing disruption?”
In an ideal world, scientists would report on science and the government would act on it. Unfortunately this hasn’t happened. So in order to get this critical message out, we having to resort to civil disruption to get in the press, in order to inform the public so that they can pressurise government. It’s farcical, but this has shown to be the way that works best. We’d rather they just listened to the science in the first place.
- TRADITIONAL LOBBYING HAS BEEN INEFFECTIVE: There was a letter by the Union of Concerned Scientists in 1992, signed by 1700 scientists and 104 Nobel Prize winners (So pretty smart people!) who all agreed that things are looking really bad, and the world needs to change right away. There have been multiple groups set up (Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth), papers, articles and books have been written, speeches given, huge climate marches have occurred in New York and London and despite all this, things are getting a lot worse.
- THINGS ARE GETTING WORSE NOT BETTER: Since the Kyoto Protocol emissions globally are up by 50% per year. Since the Paris Agreement in 2016, emissions have increased a further 5% per year. Things are out of control, and our governments have not responded appropriately.
- CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE WORKS: After Extinction Rebellion started, many countries round the world have declared an emergency. My own profession has seen 4 of the Royal Colleges (Emergency Medicine, General Practice, Physicians and Public Health) set up emergency task forces, as have 2 of our hospital trusts (Newcastle and Bristol). These tactics, whether you love them or hate them are getting in the press and forcing us to confront the issue. That said, action needs to occur at a governmental level to give us a chance of success, so there is still much work to be done.
- THIS SYSTEM CANNOT FIX IT: The system as it stands in most countries will not fix this. Our democracies are short-termist, overly influenced by lobbyists, and too full of career politicians with insufficient breadth of empathy to consider those distanced from them in time (the next generation) or geography (The global south). Very few countries are actually on target to meet the Paris Agreement (Only Morocco and the Gambia). All of the work done on political and economic systems, on which our whole system is based ( Smith, Hayek, Friedman etc) was done without understanding of the critical importance of planetary stewardship. Our governing system was not set up to protect us against long-term tragedy.
“We need to invest in more tech, not block roads.”
We cannot trust technology to come to the rescue,” said Professor Michael Norton, co-author of the study and environment programme director at the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council (EASAC).
PEOPLE HAVE SAID THIS MANY TIMES BEFORE: The Rockefeller University said in 1996 that “technology, wisely used, can spare the earth”. In 1997 there was a white paper from MIT about how we can use Carbon Capture and storage to decarbonise. 22 years later, emissions are up more than 50% per year. In 2010, the Harvard Business Review released an article stating technology can “help the world move more quickly toward a stable climate.” All of these predictions have failed completely, and with them have gone our chance to tackle climate breakdown at an early stage. Calls to “Invest in tech” are a distraction away from the deep political change we need.
WOULD A MASSIVE SHIFT TO GREEN TECH HELP? If we tried to rapidly switch to solar/battery-powered-everything , we’d need many times more Cobalt, Lithium, Silver, Copper, Nickel and Tellerium amongst others. Where would we get these at the scale needed to keep us in the luxury we are accustomed? Deep-sea mining? Rainforest mineral extraction? Unjust colonial land-grabs? What would result is yet more destruction of the planet, if there is not also a deep change to our western way of life.
Criticisms of Extinction Rebellion
- YOU’RE HYPOCRITES: Yes we are, but recovering ones. everyone I have met in XR is changing their life to one of less consumption. That said it is not possible to stop everything and still operate in society. For example I have given up flying, gone vegetarian and reduced my plastic waste markedly in the last 12 months. but I have a smartphone and a laptop. If I didn’t it would make trying to effect system change very difficult.
- YOU STOP AMBULANCES GETTING TO PATIENTS: For every planned protest, the ambulance service is told well in advance and they have alternative routes planned. They do this already during big events such as the London Marathon, the Royal Wedding and the Notting Hill Carnival. Anyone who blames XR for an ambulance being unable to reach someone’s house should also blame athletes, the royal family and the Notting Hill community for their roles in blocking roads as well.
- YOU’RE SAYING I HAVE TO GO VEGAN: No. We know that eating meat is much worse for the environment. You need around 8–10 times as much land per calorie of beef as per calorie from a plant based diet in the UK. Plus if you do have a plant based diet so it’s likely you’ll be healthier. But we don’t believe in banning people from eating what they choose.
- YOU WANT TO BAN PEOPLE HAVING CHILDREN: No. Many people in the Birthstrike movement are choosing not to have children because they are terrified of what the world will look like in the future. We strongly advocate women having the choice to do what they please with their bodies, including the right to have sex without risking becoming pregnant, and the right to delay having a family until later. With that in mind we strongly advocate for massive investment in international family planning.
- YOU WANT TO BAN FLYING: No. We want to educate people on the impacts of flying. Some people have family abroad and flying is the only reasonable way of seeing them, but as people are getting more and more aware of the climate impact they will fly less. People will choose to travel locally, explore their own areas (which contributes to the local economy), and to have more online meetings rather than business trips.
- EXTINCTION REBELLION IS FULL OF POSH PEOPLE WHO WANT TO DICTATE TO EVERYONE ELSE HOW TO LIVE: We’re not dictating anything. That suggests it’s our opinion. It isn’t. It’s science. Science is not sentimental. It doesn’t care what colour you are, what sex you are or what’s in your bank balance. This will affect all of us. But in a way you’re right posh people like me especially in the UK are protected a little, because this is already hitting the poorest countries and the poorest people who do the least to cause it.
- YOU’RE GIVING A DEPRESSING MESSAGE: Yes. But science is not sentimental. Not saying anything would be worse. In the past it was common in the medical profession to decide whether we thought a person could handle bad news. If not, they wouldn’t be told, thus denying their right to decide for themselves.People may react with anger, blame, denial, anxiety or depression, but it’s still our duty to tell them.
- SO WHAT SHOULD WE DO? We don’t have all the answers, but we believe in the power of humanity to solve the issue once we fully engage with its severity. We know some of the things we need to do; get off fossil fuels as soon as possible, reduce food waste, eat less animal products. We know we need to refuse, reuse, reduce, repair, and recycle (The latter being the least important). We know we need to make the world a fairer place, given that an unequal society is one of the drivers of self-centredness. Most of all we know that political will is one of the most important drivers of social change, so change at this level is what we aim for — and the evidence suggests the most effective way is large scale non-violent civil disobedience.
- WHAT IS YOUR POLITICAL AIM? Our system has to change to one which looks at the world as something worth saving. It has to start prioritising the longer term problems over short term ones. It should have leaders that care more about their duty of care to protect the people than about getting re-elected.
- IT IS NOT POSSIBLE TO GET TO CARBON ZERO BY 2025: This is plainly untrue. It would be physically possible to do so with the right amount of political will. It’s a matter of whether we’re prepared to accept the costs. But there really is no acceptable alternative. People will crawl across broken glass to save their loved ones. We mustn’t underestimate what they’d be prepared to do once they understand its importance.
- CHANGING THIS QUICKLY WOULD CAUSE INCREDIBLE DAMAGE TO PEOPLE’S LIVES: What needs to happen is proportionate and necessary because of the alternative. Social collapse. There is no third option where we carry on and everything’s ok.
- YOU’RE ALL COMMUNISTS: Not at all. We are not suggesting any political system, nor any political party. What we are saying is that the system we have is not working and we demand better democracy. As such a Citizens’ Assembly on this issue is a far better approach. A large and representative sample of people that is thoroughly informed on the issues, free from vested interests or political game-playing. See the Sortition Foundation for information on how this has worked in the past.
- THERE IS A LOT OF KNIFE CRIME. KIDS ARE DYING ON THE STREETS AND YOU’RE TAKING POLICE AWAY FROM THEM: What we are doing is prevention. We are trying to prevent food insecurity, suffering, and violence on a much much bigger scale. Our governments aren’t doing it. The argument that we shouldn’t spend money on prevention, and all on cure is just illogical. You could make the same argument for breast screening, for vaccination, for healthy eating campaigns. The benefits don’t become apparent for years but they are still in society’s best interests.
- LOTS OF OLDER PEOPLE AND CHILDREN ARE BEING USED TO PROTEST. ARE YOU TEACHING CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE TO VULNERABLE PEOPLE? If grannies turn up to a meeting in tears about the future for their grandchildren it’s not for us to stop them from protesting. They want to be there. They often shove aside younger people and get arrested in their place. And kids are realising what their future will be like. They know they’ll be the ones who have to face the food shortages and the violence and they’re scared. People have given the chance of extinction this century as high as 10%. Would you let your child get in a car with a 10% risk of crashing? And it wouldn’t be a case of everyone going to sleep and not waking up, it’d be a slow and painful death, that reasonable, scientifically literate people want to avoid at all costs.
- WE NEED TO PROTECT THE ECONOMY: Protecting the economy at the expense of everything else is the reason we have made no progress on climate goals in the past few decades despite knowing about them. Business as usual will lead to social breakdown and total economic collapse. Even economists now say that climate breakdown will cost way more to fix than it will to prevent, so any argument that it costs too much is ridiculous. You cannot negotiate with science.
- WHAT’S THE RUSH — WE AREN’T GOING TO DIE TOMORROW: Things that are big and complex take a lot longer to stop. Oil supertankers for example turn off their engines 25 kilometres from shore to stop them smashing into the harbour. With climate change, we should have acted decades ago. Even if the world had an epiphany tomorrow and we stopped burning everything overnight, we still might overshoot the Paris Agreement target because of “Committed warming”. And still governments fail to act. We’re like a supertanker waiting to catch sight of land before applying the brakes. It’s too late.
- IS IT REALLY A HEALTH EMERGENCY? Well the World Health Organisation, Britain’s two biggest medical journals the BMJ and the Lancet, the Royal College of GPs + the Royal College of Nursing have all declared that this is a crisis. So it depends on whether you believe them or not. But of course it’s more than a health emergency, it’s an everything emergency. Everything you care about is under threat. You care about having a flash car — you won’t be able to get one when your country is starving. And if you do, rule of law will break down so much that it will just get taken from you.The world we are headed for is not going to be a pleasant one.
- HOW FAR ARE YOU PREPARED TO GO? Once you understand the fact that our civilisation will collapse without a total societal change; once you engage emotionally with the level of suffering that will occur as society falls apart; you realise why many will go to extraordinary lengths to prevent it. This problem is not going to go away. This is not a fad. Unfortunately if we cannot fix this the non-violent way, it is likely a splinter group will emerge that is more radical. This is a future we want desperately to prevent.
- EXTINCTION REBELLION SHOULD BE FORCED TO CLEAN UP THE MESS THEY MADE: Great. Let’s make all organisations clean up after themselves, especially the fossil fuel companies. They’ve been pumping CO2 into our atmosphere for the past few decades, despite knowing all along about the harms that it would cause.
- THIS WILL NEVER GET PUBLIC SUPPORT: During the infamous Poll tax riots in London 340 people were arrested. There were at least 1832 arrests in London in October 2019 for Extinction Rebellion. The movement has spread to professional movements — Lawyers, Doctors, Architects, Teachers and even Economists. It has spread to at least 45 countries. it is the fastest growing movement in history.