It was exactly a month ago when Extinction Rebellion (XR) grabbed media attention after two of their members, NHS nurse, Ann White, and war veteran, Donald Bell, laid down a protest wreath at the foot of the Cenotaph memorial with a slogan demanding action against what the UN has recognised as a climate crisis. Veterans Minister, Johnny Mercer, suggested the wreath was disrespectful and the wreath was later removed by police. Politika News sat down with senior XR member, Liam Norton, to discuss last month’s controversy, as well as fighting the climate crisis during and after COVID-19.
Politika News: We are probably approaching the end of the worst of the COVID-19 epidemic. At the beginning of the year there was talk among climate change activists of an opportunity to reset the system. The government has also recently announced a 10-point plan to tackle climate change. Why does XR believe this plan isn’t good enough and what do you believe the UK needs to do in order to achieve a green recovery?
Liam Norton: In terms of figures, the Committee on Climate Change has said it will cost in the hundreds of billions of pounds to properly convert to a net-zero carbon economy by 2050. What the government is proposing is closer to £4 billion. The government’s own committee on climate change has admitted that the government has only passed 2 out of 31 milestones this year [Editor: to get to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050]. Basically, we can see that the government is criminally negligent.
In terms of a green recovery, all kinds of organisations can put forward their ideas on how best to do that. What XR say is that what citizens need to do is rebel – because unfortunately we’ve been trying other methods for the last 30 years and nothing else works.
Politika News: Do you believe that change can be affected through the existing political channels?
Liam Norton: Different people within XR have different viewpoints. I’m here as a spokesperson for XR – but ultimately, yes, we take the view that it can only be a citizens assembly where people are chosen in sortition, in a similar way to jury service. We have lost faith in the political system – whether it be Labour, Conservatives, or the Liberal Democrats. The scientific reports that are coming out about this climate and ecological emergency are so grave. If you look at some of the feedback loops that seem to be kicking in with the methane that’s coming out of the Arctic, and the wildfires in Siberia, this is a crisis that is happening right now. The other thing is that 2050 is a death sentence anyway. Not only is the Committee on Climate Change saying that the government is failing on their 2050 targets, 2050 itself is not enough. We have no faith whatsoever in this government or indeed any. Labour have gone back on their 2030 pledge I believe. It’s down to ordinary citizens now to rise up against this government.
Politika News: Veterans Minister, Johnny Mercer, had this to say about XR’s Cenotaph protest:
“Climate change matters, but the Cenotaph on Armistice Day should be about one thing only – showing our respect for the sacrifice of the fallen who died to protect our freedoms today.”
What does XR have to say in response?
Liam Norton: Politicians laying wreaths at the Cenotaph, declaring respect for soldiers, whilst creating the environment for war and collapse in the future, is entirely hypocritical and disrespectful. I would argue that Jonny Mercer laying a wreath is massively disrespectful. His government is creating an environment for war and collapse.
Politika News: What do you mean by ‘creating an environment war and collapse’?
Liam Norton: Ignoring the climate crisis. Remembering our past whilst completely ignoring the perils of our future is a form of insanity. If an organisation tries to highlight this, they’re always going to face a rough time. You can look back to other social movements for evidence of this. People who have pointed out this sort of injustice in our society – looking at the Suffragettes, Ghandi or the Civil Rights Movement as examples – they always get a hard time.
We understood we were entering a taboo space. But what we need to understand is that war is the most political of subjects. The climate crisis is the biggest threat facing humankind ever. There is proportionality in play with this action. You don’t just enter taboo spaces and hang banners for no reason. One way of honouring dead veterans is by not making new ones. This laying of the wreath was in response to a Ministry of Defence report that showed the Ministry is preparing for 3.5 degrees of warming over the next 80 years. The army and navy’s own Ministry of Defence are writing reports preparing for 3.5 degrees. We need to look at the horror of what 3.5. degree warming would look like.
Politika News: What would 3.5 degrees warmer look like for our lives?
Liam Norton: Well look at the Ministry of Defence’s report. It calls for the creation of war games and strategic training exercises to account for multiple, simultaneous, large-scale disasters, resulting from climate change. It also calls for the support of interoperability across the armed forces, emergency services, police, fire services and coast guards. It would be a disaster. This is a public report… I dread to think what the classified one says. 3.5 degrees warmer looks like food shortages, and social collapse. It looks like suffering.
Politika News: You and your colleague spoke on talkRADIO about the need for a ‘Money Rebellion’. Could you explain a little about what this means?
Liam Norton: There is a systemic problem. Much of the work that we do is useless. People are working just to pay off bills and debts. There is all this activity going on that we could reign in. There’s this addiction to debt and an addiction to greed. This is linked with fuelling society’s other addiction – to fossil fuels. It’s a bit of a chicken and the egg situation and it can get quite complex but there are links between our drive for growth and our needless extraction from and ravaging of the planet. This ravaging of the planet and ravaging of the people… a lot of people are in this debt trap. They are living this life just to pay debt. The two things are connected.
In this context, the idea of mass non-payment of debt [Editor: an idea put forward by XR’s Money Rebellion campaign] is a very interesting idea. The margins for financial institutions are so thin. It looks like they’re moving billions of dollars around every day but the margins they’re working on are actually more like tens of thousands of dollars. It doesn’t take that large an amount of people to start displaying civil disobedience – either through creating debt then refusing to pay it, or refusing to pay existing debt, or things like rent strike – to hurt big corporations in the pocket.
Poliitka News: How are these financial corporations linked to the climate crisis?
Liam Norton: It’s all connected. As well as fossil fuels, there’s also the financing of other things that rely on fossil fuels. These things are all being driven by corporations and greed. They are not looking out for ordinary citizens. Since neoliberalism we have seen the de-politicisation of money. The markets are true, you can’t argue with the markets. But if you look back in history, this was not always accepted as truth. Money is the most political subjects out there. We need democracy to guide how our financial institutions are operating. The Bank of England is an independent entity with no democratic accountability apart from Downing Street. What we feel it needs, is true accountability.
You talk about the COVID crisis… look at the billions of pounds they’ve used to bail out polluting industries, to airlines. A citizens assembly may not have ever granted that money. There is no accountability to the public.
Politika News: Do you think the British people realise the gravity of climate change?
Liam Norton: There’s definitely more work to be done.
Politika News: Where do you think the gap lies in people’s understanding of the climate crisis?
Liam Norton: I think the gap – and this links into what I said about democracy earlier – lies in the fact that our country (and indeed most countries around the world) is being massively let down by the media and the journalists who work for them.
The Daily Mail were talking about how disrespectful XR was during our Cenotaph protest, but if you look at what we did, you can’t see anything disrespectful. We didn’t trample over anything, we didn’t hijack anything, we laid a wreath. But look at how they distort a nurse and veteran – two professions that offer so much, especially nurses during this COVID crisis – look at how they attacked those two people. And with Donald they brought up stories about his past that were linked to his PTSD when he left the army, which is a problem for lots of service people.
Instead of talking about the issue at hand, which is the Ministry of Defence’s report and the fact that the government is failing on its targets, what the Daily Mail decided to do was to vilify a nurse and a veteran, and vilify XR. That is what they are choosing to do. This reflects how the media as a whole – because they are owned by five billionaires and are not really serving the people of this country – are not telling people the truth.
Politika News: How is the media not telling the truth on climate change?
Liam Norton: For example, there was a report last week on methane levels in the Arctic. The Arctic is melting and not refreezing like it used to. They are recording levels of methane that is being released with the thawing of permafrosts and melting of ice. Methane is 86 times more powerful a gas than carbon. This should be on the front page. People should know how bad it is. This should be on the front page of the news every single day. This should be a BBC headline every single day. People should be aware of how dangerous the situation is. The reason they don’t know is because they’re being failed by their media – but journalists should be taking a stand. What if the newsreaders of the BBC were to leave their job and say, ‘I’m going into rebellion against this government because the media is not telling the truth on the climate crisis’? Who is doing this? Nobody.
Politika News: Do you think people still view climate change as a far away issue?
Liam Norton: Yes I do. If we were in Bangladesh, they would have justified our action at the Cenotaph. In my mind, when XR do an action like this, it is just as important that we have in mind that we do it just as much for the people of Bangladesh as we do for the people of Birmingham. This truly is a global problem.
We’re seeing a rise of fascism, and this complete ignorance of the fact that policies in the UK and USA have effects on other communities in the world. The displacement that then happens are a result of policies that we have made, so we can’t then turn round and reject people and say they aren’t our problem, or what’s going on with the Inuits is not our problem, because we have contributed to these problems collectively through things like economic policy and the imperialism of the past. And we as a country contribute more carbon per person than poorer countries do. There is lots more work to be done. We can’t live whilst others die. We can’t do that anymore.
Politika News: How do global communities come together?
Liam Norton: I don’t know if you’ve looked into the idea of a global citizens assembly that’s being talked about, which is this idea that a bus driver from Basingstoke can be sat in a citizens assembly next to an indigenous activist from the Amazon. This idea of trying to link world problems up in a capacity of ordinary people. That would be another interesting thing that could be done to move forward.
Politika News: Finally, What are XR’s upcoming initiative as Britain tries to get out of COVID-19 and back to normality?
Liam Norton: To keep rebelling. In whatever ways that can happen. There are discussions to be had with different international groups to see if a coordinated international rebellion could happen again. You said earlier that the worst of COVID may be behind us. That may be true. But there is also the potential for financial instability. I think there will be more interesting things happening in 2021 that we can’t predict.
One of the ideas for XR is to try and be there when the whirlwind happens, when this moment of change happens. We saw that with Black Lives Matter this year. It was a completely unexpected rising up of people in response to the murder of George Floyd. I’m not saying something like that is going to happen again but something unexpected could happen. And we still don’t know what kind of extreme weather events are going to happen over the next three or four months, and how that will affect people.
Politika News would like to thank Liam Norton and Extinction Rebellion for giving their time. For more climate news from around Europe, visit Politika Europe.