Seeing is not always believing. I’m writing this just minutes after hundreds of police officers closed in on Extinction Rebellion protesters on the fifth day of largely peaceful demonstrations in central London. More than 500 people have been arrested at protests on Waterloo Bridge, outside Parliament Square and in Oxford Circus. Police surrounded a pink boat — yes, you read that right — in Oxford Circus with the words, “Tell The Truth” emblazoned across its hull, moments after the actress Emma Thompson told activists that her generation has “failed young people” — the same message 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg, 44 years Thompson’s junior, impressed on MEPs, members of the European Parliament, earlier in the week.
“We are here in this little island of sanity and it makes me so happy yo be able to join you all and add my voice to the young people here who have inspired a whole new movement,” Thompson told the crowd, in what sounded like pre-prepared, carefully rehearsed comments. She’s an actress, after all.
The police, London mayor Sadiq Khan and newspaper editorial writers don’t see it that way, of course. Drivers inside London’s fee-generating Decongestion Zone — the clue is in the name — should be allowed to drive unimpeded, it appears. Making money is more important than the environment. Gas guzzlers are fine, thank you very much, as long as you’re willing to pay the surcharge on your gas-guzzling older model vehicle, on top of the charge you already pay for driving through the centre of London.
The police were certainly pre-prepared. BBC reported many of the officers were wearing high-vis jackets sporting the words “Protestor Removal Team,” something they wouldn’t have bothered with had they no intention of removing protestors.
It’s worth remembering that it’s now the weekend, and a long weekend at that. Or, as they call it in Britain — irony unintended — a “bank holiday weekend.”
The protests come at a time when many of the same media outlets that are criticizing the demonstrations with op-ed pieces headed, “The Extinction Rebels have got their tactics badly wrong,” have said — in separate pieces, written by other writers — that climate change and, more importantly, the cause(s) that lie behind climate change, is the single most overlooked, under-reported story in media today.
That will doubtless sound counterintuitive to anyone reading this page, or who follows groups like SeaLegacy and the Rare & Endangered Species Trust (REST Namibia) on Facebook, where the news seems to be nothing but climate change. For all their passion, though, these are niche audiences — the mainstream news, even on Earth Day weekend, is all about Trump, Brexit and Notre Dame Cathedral, and who’s going to be named “Head of Household” this weekend on Big Brother: Canada.
And the news on Trump has nothing to do with his stance on climate and the environment (“HIs ignorance is startling,” according to the journal Oil Change International) but rather his propensity for corruption, obstruction of justice and currying favour with his country’s traditional enemies in order to win an election against an unpopular opponent — two years ago.
“Hearts and minds will not be won with protest puppetry, guerrilla gardening and talk of climate justice,” the protest’s detractors say, citing the usual bromides: Blocking bridges, disrupting public transport and gluing themselves to fences outside politicians’ homes is no way to effect change, leaving aside the fact that street demonstrations in Paris in May, 1968 did exactly that, and shaped French society for decades — decades — afterwards. The May 1968 street protests in France are today considered a cultural, social and moral turning point in that nation’s history. The 1968 Paris demonstrations succeeded in part, activist and then-protest leader Alain Geismar — a physicist sentenced to 18 months in jail for his actions — would point out, because they were “a social revolution, not a political one.”
The Extinction Rebellion protests might yet mark a turning point in what to date has been a struggle for climate activists to seize the public conversation. The old simp about how meaningful and long-lasting change requires more talk and less direct action no longer holds water — pun intended. The climate crisis is no longer a crisis but an emergency. The time for talk is over. Climate model after climate model shows that the process of global warming is accelerating at a pace beyond even the most pessimistic — some would say realistic — projections. It’s no longer enough to say Canada’s Northwest Passage will be free of summer ice in our lifetime — it is already ice-free in the summer months. As the David Attenborough Netflix program Our Planet documented painfully in its episode about the polar regions, Arctic sea ice has vanished to the point where walruses are dying from jumping off rock cliffs, thinking they’ll land in water. This is happening now, today, not in some abstract future. And that’s what the Extinction Rebellion protests are about. They’re a call to action. And whether you choose to believe 60-year-old Emma Thompson or 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, it’s time for everyone to wake up.
Here are the ways climate change has gone unreported by the mainstream media in the past year, according to a study by the NGO Care International that analyzed more than one million online news stories.
Climate change was directly responsible for the majority of humanitarian disasters over the past year. Entire populations were affected by food crises caused by drought or hurricane flooding in countries from Ethiopia, Sudan and Chad to the Philippines, Madagascar and Haiti, and yet few of these crises generated more than 1,000 news stories each.
In Madagascar, more than a million people went hungry as corn and rice fields withered in a drought exacerbated by severe El Niño conditions. Today, almost half that country’s children suffer from stunted growth, according to CARE International, but their suffering has generated scant few headlines. Across the globe, extreme weather events claimed more than 5,000 lives in 2018 and left 25 million people in need of humanitarian aid and emergency assistance.
As Asad Rehman, executive director of the NGO War on Want, told The Guardian, “Climate change reporting prefers pictures of polar bears to those who we are killing with our inaction.”
Dr. Viwanou Gnassounou, assistant secretary general of the Africa Caribbean Pacific (ACP) group of states and the point person on ACP’s program for sustainable development, told The Guardian that donor countries often link aid to an agreement to remain silent on the climate change.
“We try always to show that these disasters are linked to climate change but we have to fight to get our points heard. We have not been very successful until now. The media coverage is poor and reported in terms of ‘disaster’ — not linked to climate change or its consequences.
“They will never say it formally but it is part of the conversation,” Gnassounou told The Guardian. “They prefer that you condemn yourself by saying you did not have a proper policy to prevent disaster and now you need their support.”
Contrast that with what some of the demonstrators were telling local papers these past few days in London.
Here was Cathy Eastburn, 51, who told reporters she decided to take a stand for her teenage daughters. “I don’t want to be here today, and I’m really sorry for the disruption, but I feel I have been forced to do this,” she told The Guardian’s Matthew Taylor and Damien Gayle. “I have two daughters and I can’t sit by while their future is threatened … The government is doing nothing. We have to force them to act.”
Given the stakes involved, an extra weekend of traffic disruption in central London seems a small price to pay to get the rest of world to wake up.