COP26: Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain are groups we should all get behind if politicians are to make the right decisions – Joyce McMillan

All eyes turn to Glasgow, as preparations reach fever pitch for next weekend’s launch of the COP26 UN climate conference; but the dear green place was not the only town in the UK to see some climate action this week.

In fact it was in Thurrock, just off the M25 in Essex, that a woman attracted headlines, on Tuesday, for driving her 4x4 into a group of Insulate Britain protesters who were sitting and standing on an access road to the motorway; bystanders apparently applauded her actions, and shouted encouragement.

It’s easy enough, of course, to guess where the woman in the 4x4 was coming from. In much of modern Britain, and particularly in suburban areas like Thurrock, people’s lives are shaped and made possible by what are, objectively speaking, unsustainable levels of car dependency, bad not only for carbon emissions, but for health, air quality, community, and quality of life.

In order to sustain their daily routines, people – not least women – often need to be able to drive from home to school to work to shops to caring responsibilities and home again, in roughly the time expected, or everything begins to fall apart for them; and the pain of having that knife-edge routine disrupted by a bunch of middle-class climate activists in high-vis jackets is likely to provoke extreme irritation, if not rage.

The problem is, though, that as soon as we step back a little from the hurly-burly on the slip-road, we can see that those objecting to the protesters’ actions are on shaky ground, in several directions.

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The first objection, routinely offered, is that “there are other ways” for campaigners to make their point; whereas recent history suggests that in fact, those “other ways” are frighteningly ineffective.

If meaningful action on climate change could be achieved by orderly campaigning and lobbying, and arguments from scientific evidence, then half of the extra carbon dioxide currently warming our atmosphere – the half emitted since the first attempt to negotiate global carbon reduction in 1989 – would not be there at all, and we would not be facing climate collapse on a global scale.

Police officers break up an Insulate Britain protest occupying a roundabout leading from the M25 motorway to Heathrow Airport (Picture: Steve Parsons/PA)

Then secondly, there is the argument that the debate is over, and that governments are already taking action. Look beyond the high theatre of COP26 though – and this is a global conference which briefly threatened, in almost unprecedented style, to bring together the Queen, the Pope and the President of the United States, until the Pope cancelled this week – and you will see a parade of inadequacy and indecision, on behalf of most governments, that suggests that the world will make gestures towards carbon reduction, will switch to electric cars, and will invest heavily in renewable energy sources, but will not do so at anything like the speed required to halt hydrocarbon burning, and avert climate disaster.

Countries vary in the seriousness with which they are tackling the issue, of course; Norway, for example, aims to eliminate petrol-driven cars in the next four years, and Costa Rica just won a Prince William Earth Shot prize for massively restoring its once-devastated tropical forests.

Most common, though, is the kind of situation we currently face in Britain, where the Johnson government has started to talk the talk on climate action, but this week announced a package of changes which experts calculated would produce a catastrophic 3C of global warming, rather than meeting the target of 1.5C.

Clearly, the Prime Minister’s blithe assertion that a low-carbon society can be created “without a hair shirt in sight” – ie while continuing to live exactly as we did at the height of the hydrocarbon boom – trumps the increasingly urgent need to stop carbon emissions now; and although the Scottish government was an earlier and more convincing adopter of green policies and language than the UK administration, its record in practice is often almost as disappointing.

Progress has been made, in other words; but not on a scale that remotely matches the urgency of the crisis, and not even on the scale of the radical action taken last year to contain the Covid pandemic.

When governments see the woman in Thurrock drive her gas-guzzling 4x4 into those climate protesters, they only see her rage at the disruption of her car-borne lifestyle; and they run scared of that anger, fearing its impact at the ballot box.

Governments have a duty, though, to look a little more deeply into the dynamics of public opinion on this matter, which suggest that climate change now ranks high on the list of political priorities for voters across the globe.

What if the women of Thurrock, in their few leisure moments, are sick with worry about the future of their children and grandchildren, and sick, too, of the stress-laden lifestyle that forces them to drive the congested roads in a constant state of haste and tension, just to fulfil basic human tasks?

What if they are telling pollsters that climate change matters to them? What if politicians are ignoring those polls, or making inadequate responses to them, because they wrongly fear short-term economic disruption more than they fear climate change?

In that sense, protesters like Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain are only the sharp end of the battering-ram we all need to get behind, in order to urge our fearful politicians towards a new vision, and open up for our children the possibility of a new and more sustainable world, less abusive of nature and of ourselves.

And perhaps, as Priti Patel seeks authoritarian powers to limit the activities of those protesters in England, we should therefore think twice about which side in this battle really speaks for us and for our future, before we even consider cheering her on.

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