What I learned at the Extinction Rebellion protest – John McLellan

A protestor enthusiastically waved a placard saying “The planet is dying” as she puffed on a cigarette, another sported a jacket with “we’re all mad round here” emblazoned on the back.

By The Newsroom
Thursday, 18th April 2019, 7:00 am
Extinction Rebellion campaigners bring North Bridge to a standstill. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

Welcome to Edinburgh’s Extinction Rebellion on Tuesday afternoon, where no samba drum went knowingly unbanged as the North Bridge was blocked for six hours in a bid to force the Scottish Government to act on climate change.

There was no doubting the earnest intent of up to 300 demonstrators, a disparate bunch of students, bearded Che Guevara wannabes and grannies (their description, not mine) demanding the UK and Scottish governments declare a climate emergency and make sure we’re not all burnt to a crisp before the 2026 World Cup.

So have politicians been sitting on their hands while the Earth fries? Since the Climate Change Act was passed with all-party support in 2008, UK greenhouse gas emissions have fallen to 43 per cent below 1990 levels, meeting the first two four-year carbon targets and on target to meet the third by 2022.

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Environmentalists block bridge to bring Edinburgh to standstill

But at the end of last year Westminster’s Committee on Climate Change reported that “urgent action is needed to flesh out current plans and proposals, and supplement them with additional measures, to meet the UK’s legally-binding carbon targets in the 2020s and 2030s”.

In response, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy published an update paper detailing all the current and future actions with a list of 54 milestones for the next two or three years, but is it enough?

The launch of a gloomy Met Office report in November heard this: “It is clear that the planet and its weather patterns are changing before our eyes. Our seas are storing increasing amounts of heat: around half of all ocean warming has occurred since 1997. Even as we take action to slow carbon dioxide pollution now, physics dictates that the climate will keep heating up for decades to come.”

Who said this? Was it Extinction Tebellion co-founder Clare Farrell who was on the Radio 4 PM programme on Monday to justify the traffic disruption in London which led to scores of arrests? No, it was UK environment secretary Michael Gove who added: “It is impossible to meet climate mitigation and climate adaptation objectives without the natural environment, and we can’t save nature without tackling climate change… halting and then reversing the crisis facing the natural world.”

The Extinction Rebellion wants zero carbon within six years, so things obviously aren’t happening fast enough for them, but the movement is not just about climate change or biodiversity. It is also, according to Ms Farrell, about “addressing a debt-obsessed economy” and tackling the “insane level of consumption of consumer goods”.

Certainly the leaflets being handed out on North Bridge were clear: “When government and the law fail to ensure the security of a people’s well-being and the nation’s future, it becomes the right of citizens to seek redress. We rise in a struggle for a meaningful democracy capable of enacting the radical solutions our crisis demands.”

If regular elections and changes of administration don’t represent meaningful democracy I don’t know what does, but perhaps the reality is it’s the outcome these people don’t like, which sounds as undemocratic as the protest’s demand for the establishment of a randomly selected People’s Assembly and its members “educated”. By whom?

No, Tuesday was not so much about mass anger rising up against a cloth-eared dictatorship, but good old-fashioned left-wing, student union politics. “We call upon every principled and peaceful citizen to rise with us,” said the leaflet, even drawing equivalence with Martin Luther King.

There have also been comparisons with Emmeline Pankurst, Mahatma Ghandi, and Nelson Mandela. How about James Connolly? At least he was from Edinburgh and the British shot him ... on second thoughts, too violent. I’ll settle for Wolfie Smith. Power to the people.

Reluctant warriors had lots of fun

I COULDN’T let the moment of history pass so on Tuesday I duly joined the Extinction Rebellion protest, blending in with the bike, the oil-smeared hi-viz yellow cycle jacket and helmet as I weaved through the police to join the Front Line.

A thin line it was too at the High Street –more people were watching the escapologist outside the Fringe office – but plenty more down the Bridge outside the Balmoral. A wee choir of elderly ladies struck up (Gareth Malone has a lot to answer for…) something no doubt very meaningful, a girl warbled The Times They are a Changin’ through a megaphone, someone threw a ball for a rescue mutt where buses usually go, and half-a dozen 20-somethings frolicked in that happy-clappy way they do when there is a bit of road space.

One demonstrator told the Evening News that not acting would be tantamount to signing her children’s death warrant, which didn’t say much for the thousands of other parents not trying to grind their neighbourhoods to a standstill. A Glasgow University theologian, so presumably expert in unfalsifiable theories (oops, that word again ...) complained they really didn’t want to disrupt people’s routines, but they had no choice. As Lothian Buses 31s and 37s jostled with 23s, 27s and 41s as they snaked up The Mound and along George IV Bridge, the reluctant warriors looked very much that they were thoroughly enjoying themselves not wanting to irritate anyone.

Spotting a police officer I knew I asked how it was going. “Oh fine, but we were meant to knock off at five,” he said, seemingly unimpressed by my suggestion that the overtime might help bring down the oppressive capitalist system.

As the end of the protest loomed, the Government hadn’t caved, carbon was going uncaptured and the threat of us all being incinerated before 2025 was the same as it was at 3pm. Inevitably, martyrdom beckoned and 29 had their collars felt.

Same time next week, comrades?