Mary Robinson is right about climate activists

Your conservative uncle needs to identify with the climate activist and then he needs to feel he can align with their actions and measures, writes Joyce Fegan.

Former president Mary Robinson has said she hopes Extinction Rebellion will be smart about its tactics because if not, it could put the movement a step back. Picture: Conor McCabe
Former president Mary Robinson has said she hopes Extinction Rebellion will be smart about its tactics because if not, it could put the movement a step back. Picture: Conor McCabe

DURING 2018, there was a specific moment when the Repeal movement became a campaign.

Movements are different beasts to campaigns. Social mores kick in and it’s no longer about just mobilising your base, but instead, engaging the all-important middle — the general public.

After that specific moment in 2018, those who sought to repeal the Eighth Amendment from the Constitution, to make way for the legal termination of pregnancy, consciously changed their language, tone of voice and approach, in order to be listened to by the confused, overwhelmed or disengaged middle.

On Wednesday, March 28, 2018, a date was announced for the referendum on whether or not the Irish people wanted the Eighth Amendment removed from their Constitution, and so began two official months of campaigning. Repeal needed to shift from being a mobilising movement to a life-changing campaign.

Climate action will have no such catalytic date.

There is no doubt that we, and not just in Ireland, are in the middle of a movement — one that wants to cut down on fossil fuel use, greenhouse gas emissions and make the world carbon neutral by 2050.

It’s been driven by a whole host of actors from symphonies of scientists to Sweden’s Greta Thunberg, and from hundreds of thousands of teenagers taking to the streets to the larger movement of Extinction Rebellion.

Extinction Rebellion has made some much-needed noise by being disruptive.

They’ve woken workers up from their post-work slumber, calling their attention away the Candy Crush game on their iPhone on the stuffy commute home. Their organisers have found themselves being interviewed on State broadcasters.

Extinction Rebellion has got our attention, and they’ve also got some serious support.

Ex-REM frontman Michael Stipe is giving all the profits from his debut solo single, ‘Your Capricious Soul’, to Extinction Rebellion.

Wealthy US philanthropists, acting under the Climate Emergency Fund, have pledged $350,000 to Extinction Rebellion.

And Canadian author Margaret Atwood, when accepting the Man Booker Prize for her latest novel The Testaments, wore a badge with the Extinction Rebellion logo on it.

Their symbol is an hourglass within a circle. According to the group, “the circle signifies the planet, while the hourglass inside serves as a warning that time is rapidly running out for many species”.

Protesters demonstrate outside the BlackRock headquarters in Throgmorton Avenue, London, during an Extinction Rebelliong climate change protest.
Protesters demonstrate outside the BlackRock headquarters in Throgmorton Avenue, London, during an Extinction Rebelliong climate change protest.

But the likes of Atwood and Stipe are not the middle. Both artists have always supported social justice and have helped to raise awareness for many issues over their requisite lifetimes.

What the middle hear about on the radio and see on Twitter timelines are images of traffic disruptions and sit-down protesters.

British prime minister Boris Johnson labelled climate activists as “un-cooperative crusties” who he called on to stop blocking the streets of London with their “heaving hemp-smelling bivouacs”. They’re phrases that are sure to make radio waves.

The public probably also know climate activists from that London Tube incident last Thursday, when two Extinction Rebellion protesters climbed on top of a train. They were soon dragged back to the ground by disgruntled commuters.

Down in Australia, 20 protesters were arrested and strip-searched during a week of climate action protests. One of those strip-searched was allegedly a 17-year-old girl.

These protests are surely getting our attention and raising awareness of the urgent action needed to tackle climate change.

But, that precious middle, who we desperately need to change their ways if we are to tackle climate change, need to be able to do two things.

Your conservative uncle needs to identify with the climate activist and then he needs to feel he can align with their actions and measures.

But it’s a hard balance. You don’t raise awareness by being meek and mild-mannered, you raise awareness by being disruptive and grabbing global headlines.

But similarly, you don’t engage the middle by being radically disruptive, you do it by being mild-mannered. It’s an impossible task. But one that goes back to the great metamorphosis from movement to campaign.

This week two things happened.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published its provisional greenhouse gas emissions for Ireland for 2018. We’ve exceeded our emissions budget by 5m tonnes. This follows an exceedance of 3m tonnes in 2017.

Our goal to cut emissions and be carbon neutral by 2050, in order to save the planet, is not going so well.

An Extinction Rebellion climate protester scaled the scaffolding surrounding Big Ben in London earlier this month. (Dominic Lipinski/PA)
An Extinction Rebellion climate protester scaled the scaffolding surrounding Big Ben in London earlier this month. (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

Meanwhile, our former president, Mary Robinson, weighed in on the current global movement to tackle climate change.

“I hope they (Extinction Rebellion activists) will be very smart about their tactics because if they alienate the public that will put us a step backwards,” said Mrs Robinson.

But the Irish branch of Extinction Rebellion is well aware of the nuance needed to engage the middle when it comes to any major social change.

Cormac Nugent, a spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion Ireland, said the grassroots movement welcomed Mrs Robinson’s “constructive criticism”. The group “agree that we need to be smarter as a movement in our tactics,” he said.

Mrs Robinson, when commenting on useful tactics to bring about change, offered up some other disruptive alternatives.

“Disruption takes many forms. Disruption can be litigation, disruption can be shareholder questions at meetings,” she said.

Disruption can also be sending empty crisp packets back to their manufacturers. Have a Google of the Walkers crisps postal protest of 2018.

However, having produced 5m more tonnes of emissions than we should have this year in Ireland alone, we’ll need a lot more than postal protests to bring about major change.

But one thing is important if we are to tackle the issue of our day — we need to look at and talk about the gains that will be made when we change our ways, from new industries cropping up creating cleaner and more sustainable jobs to eating food that’s locally grown and free of pesticides.

It might sound like an idyllic dream, but it’s a dream worth dreaming and worthy of our united action.

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