As the momentum behind the Extinction Rebellion campaign continues, Eoghan Ó Ceannabháin argues that we need our own social-movement “tipping point” to stop climate change.
The dramatic and unprecedented week-long mass civil disobedience by Extinction Rebellion in London, following the extraordinary global school students strikes show clearly that a sense of urgency is growing in relation to the issue of climate emergency. This urgency is mixed in with desperation among some, hope among others, with despair, panic, helplessness and determination also present in good measure.
It’s not difficult to see why. Last year’s IPCC report stating that we have now less than 12 years to take radical action to reduce carbon emissions or face runaway climate change has caused widespread panic and has also galvanised many into action. A hugely significant aspect of this has been the global school climate strikes, with millions of young people around the world getting out on the streets to demand that the political establishment act now to tackle climate change.
Yet, on the other hand, there appears to be little movement from the world’s political leaders. In Ireland, Fine Gael are fighting tooth and nail to stop the Climate Emergency Measures bill that would ban any further oil and gas exploration in Irish waters. They have cut public transport subsidies and are treating the massive beef and dairy industries, which are constantly seeking to expand into untapped markets around the globe, with kid gloves. Elsewhere, Canadian President Justin Trudeau has continually supported the construction of pipelines to transport Alberta tar sands oil. A commitment to using this oil is a commitment to increasingly intensive and emission-heavy modes of extraction.
Varadkar and Trudeau have been somewhat successful in greenwashing their own images and painting themselves as pro-environment, although this image is beginning to crumble now. On the other side of the spectrum, we have Trump, who continues to deny climate change altogether, and Bolsonaro of Brazil, who is threatening to completely destroy the Amazon, one of the largest carbon sinks on the planet.
Climate Tipping Points
The main danger outlined in the IPCC report is the possibility of reaching tipping points where certain irreversible processes may be put in motion that will release large amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, dramatically speeding up global warming, further exacerbating feedback loops, and provoking inevitable and catastrophic climate change. One of these potential tipping points is the methane gas trapped in the arctic permafrost. Recent studies show that melting permafrost could release methane gas to the equivalent of 205 gigatons of carbon dioxide, provoking a temperature rise of up to 0.5°C. This situation, which some scientists say is not adequately accounted for in the IPCC report, would make it extremely difficult to keep warming increases under the 2°C limit.
The ice caps also mitigate against global warming by reflecting the light of the sun out into space and preventing it from being trapped in the atmosphere. The ability of surfaces to reflect light is known as the albedo and has a cooling effect. Arctic ice reflects 50-70% of the sun’s light, whereas the ocean only reflects 6%. The melting of the ice caps could therefore result in a further tipping point, with more of the sun’s heat being trapped in the atmosphere, warming the world’s oceans and possibly setting off further warming mechanisms such as the release of methane currently trapped in the sea bed.
Reaching any one of these tipping points could provoke runaway, irreversible climate change, with catastrophic effects for our biosphere. Yet the fossil fuel industry is allowed to continue drilling, fracking, and extracting fuel largely unchecked. Financial institutions continue to invest heavily in oil. Big agriculture continues to pollute both through the production of greenhouse gasses and through overuse of pesticides and fertilisers. Single use plastics continue to be produced on a mass scale every day. Planned obsolescence in much of our technologies means the constant replacement of appliances, adding to endless waste and increasing our carbon footprint. The whole system is unsustainable, but its profit-driven, competitive nature means that those at the head of it will not change their behaviours for fear of losing out to their competitors.
What is the hope for the planet?
In reality, it is absolutely possible for us to dramatically reduce global carbon emissions to net zero, and even reverse the effects of climate change that have already begun. This can be done, but only through a dramatic shift away from the current system. Fossil fuels would need to be left in the ground and massive investment made into renewable energies. Mass public transport systems would be imperative to take as many cars off the road as possible. We would need to move away from big agriculture to more sustainable farming methods. Workers in carbon-intensive industries would need to be retrained and rehired in other industries without experiencing any negative financial impact. We would also need to allow some parts of the world to re-wild, growing forests that could absorb much of the carbon already in the atmosphere.
The ideas here are explained in broad strokes, but are being further debated and developed by climate scientists, environmentalists and activists around the world. The key thing to stress here is that all of this is absolutely possible. What we require is a social force to drive it through and make it happen.
It is clear that the 1% and the political class that serves them will do no such thing. Greta Thunberg summed up the situation when she demanded of them in Davos:
“Adults keep saying we owe it to the young people, to give them hope. But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house is on fire, because it is.”
Thunberg is right not to seek hope from our elites. They have proved over the last 30 years that they are utterly incapable of taking the necessary measures to deal with climate change. The movements have forced some like Varadkar and Trudeau to strive to make it appear as if they are dealing with the issue, but their support of fossil fuels and the meat industry gives the lie to their words. Hope from these leaders is false hope and therefore detrimental.
However, those of us who are panicking do need hope to come from somewhere. Without it we can achieve nothing.
That hope, I believe, can be found among the actions of ordinary people all over the world. They take the form of the school climate strikers fighting for their future. They take the form of the growing movement of activists fighting for a Green New Deal in the US. They are the small Chinese farmers resisting land grabs from the Chinese state, the indigenous people and other activists resisting the destruction of the Amazon, the thousands of people from Extinction Rebellion shutting down the city of London this week – actions which may well be mirrored in Dublin on Friday.
The hope for the future lies with the 99%. Currently, our movements are not big enough to radically change the system we live under, but they are applying pressure and they are growing.
Societal Tipping Points
Indeed, movements can have tipping points too. At the time of writing, the Sudanese people have just overthrown the dictator, Omar al-Bashir and are fighting the re-establishment of military rule in the country. Rising discontent with IMF-imposed austerity, the price of food, and the oppressive regime lead to resistance, protests and eventually a tipping point that provoked the heroic revolt that removed al-Bashir.
Pro-choice activists in Ireland campaigned for decades to remove the 8th amendment. One could identify any number of tipping points in this struggle – the death of Savita Halapanavaar and the subsequent outpouring of grief, rage and action, or the decision to hold a referendum last year being two of the most striking – but this year we saw the introduction of legislation that many people thought might not have been achieved for many years to come.
There have been many other tipping points in the course of history – the Haitian Revolution that was the catalyst for the end of slavery around the world, Rosa Parks’ decision not to give up her seat on the bus, the 1916 Rebellion in Ireland – these tipping points are invariably the result of long struggles by ordinary, oppressed people.
Keeping up the Fight
The climate movement may not be powerful enough to change the system yet, but it is imperative that we get there. The actions of the elites in maintaining the relentless charge towards destruction are demoralising, but there is no choice but to fight this fight. Whether our chances of winning are 50%, 10% or 1%, there is no option to back out – our survival depends on changing the system.
Climate activists must therefore seek to grow our movements at every opportunity. We need to make the movement accessible and link up with other struggles wherever possible. Climate activists can link up with housing activists, demanding that the state build modern, energy-efficient public housing, complete with solar panels to generate their own renewable energy. We can and should make common cause with anti-racist movements that seek to protect refugees fleeing war, poverty or ecological disasters. Instead of supporting Leo Varadkar’s carbon taxes, we should demand free public transport for all, deep retrofitting of homes, and massive investment in renewable energies – all things that will make life easier for struggling people, and therefore easier for them to get involved in the movement.
The movement must continue to be broadened, grown and radicalised. Hope and confidence in our collective abilities must be built and more radical actions must be taken by much larger numbers of people if we are to challenge the status quo.
For us, our tipping point cannot come soon enough.