Stuff NZ: The planet’s last stand: Why these climate change activists are ready to break the law

Next week thousands of Kiwi students will leave school in a strike for climate change action.

In a suit and tie, retired fund manager Charles Drace is not your typical rebel. California-born, he was once a theatre and film actor, with bit parts in the spaghetti Western ‘Once Upon A Time in the West’ and war movie ‘Patton’.

Now, from his neat town house in central Christchurch, the 74-year-old is plotting how to get arrested.

“For years and years now, we’ve been playing nice. And I think one of the things that has been recognised in the last year or so is that it’s not working. We just can’t be nice anymore.”

Drace is a climate activist, a member of the global movement Extinction Rebellion. It began in November, when thousands of protesters paralysed London by disrupting traffic. Since then, it’s caught fire across the globe, with around a million members in 35 countries carrying out acts of civil disobedience.

Charles Drace says he's a "fat cat type" but many professional people like him are joining Extinction Rebellion's direct action campaign.
GEORGE HEARD/STUFF
Charles Drace says he’s a “fat cat type” but many professional people like him are joining Extinction Rebellion’s direct action campaign.

They’ve glued themselves to buildings and spray painted “frack off” graffiti, closed five major London bridges, swarmed Fashion Week and gone on hunger strike outside Westminster Palace.

In New Zealand, ‘zombies’ have paraded through Wellington airport, held a funeral for Planet Earth in Nelson, and shut off the water supply to Environment Canterbury’s headquarters. Last week, 35 activists banged on the glass windows of BP’s Auckland office, chanting “liar, liar, pants on fire.”

Next month, they’ll join groups across the world in a week of civil disobedience and attention-grabbing stunts.

(Left to right) Torfrida Wainwright, Rowan Brooks and Charles Drace are all members of the Christchurch branch of Extinction Rebellion, a direct action campaign to protest climate change.
GEORGE HEARD/STUFF
(Left to right) Torfrida Wainwright, Rowan Brooks and Charles Drace are all members of the Christchurch branch of Extinction Rebellion, a direct action campaign to protest climate change.

It’s bigger than just a march. Extinction Rebellion’s goal is to trigger an enormous political and cultural shift, big enough to save the planet from certain doom. They say they need 3.5 per cent of the population on board to make radical change. Numbers in New Zealand total about 2000, so about 165,000 short.

“We are declaring rebellion against the government for criminal inaction and what Extinction Rebellion sees as a climate and ecological emergency,” Rowan Brooks, 29, says.

“One of the core things which XR is saying is we need to tell truth and start acting like it.

“We need to stop pretending that we will sort some things out, and that we’ve got 50 years. Disruptive protest is a way of motivating politicians and the powerful to do things.”

Athlete and small business owner Gene Beveridge, 26, joined the BP protest, the first time he’s ever got involved with a political movement.

“Personally, I’m not really that interested in marching around but if that is what we need, then I’ll do it … I want policies to be a better reflection of science and public opinion.

“Over the past three or four years, with the Trump phenomenon and Brexit, I’ve just realised that the discourse is quite heated. That’s what woke me up.

“I couldn’t rely on other people, there isn’t enough goodness in the world for things just to work out. I had to get involved myself.”

Rowan Brooks says he's prepared to be arrested for protesting against inaction on global warming.
GEORGE HEARD/STUFF
Rowan Brooks says he’s prepared to be arrested for protesting against inaction on global warming.

Until now, climate activism has concentrated on pollution, plastics, the impact on animals and forests or the melting of ice-sheets. Extinction Rebellion goes much further, warning of the collapse of civilisation, famine and the extinction of mankind.

“We have to be dramatic, we have to make the point so strongly that the Government is forced to listen, instead of listening gently and coming back with platitudes,” Drace says.

Their message might be extreme, but you won’t find more polite subversives. They are non-violent, against damage to property and use graffiti paint that washes away.

Brooks, a community garden co-ordinator, frequently interrupts himself to make sure others in the group get a fair say.

Drace likes formal dress for protests, because environmentalists are often stereotyped as “hippies.”

“I have tried to break that mold,” he laughs. “I guess I would be described by most people as being in a fat cat type of occupation. But there are an awful lot of professional people who really care.”

The Christchurch branch, with around 150 members, is planning their first ‘swarming’ road blocks in the city. They’ll last ten minutes each, and volunteers will hand out water, snacks and explanatory pamphlets.

“We are going to be doing really short stints just around the place, to practice and to start little moments of disruption,” Brooks says.

“It’s not about the motorists. It is about saying maybe we need to stop what we are doing for a second and look at the gravity of the situation.

“Once traffic isn’t moving through a city, then that has a flow on effect which is economic. People aren’t managing to do their things as well. And then people start saying [to] council, government: ‘what are you going to do about these people who say there is a climate emergency’?”

A group called Extinction Rebellion turned off water at the ECan offices and chained themselves to the water mains in protest to the way ECan has been dealing with Canterbury’s water.

Aren’t they worried about frustrating people?

Brooks says Kiwi cities won’t suddenly grind to a halt, largely because the movement is in its infancy.

“In New Zealand, with the two degrees of separation, once you have people who are willing to put their bodies on the line, then everyone who knows them, trusts them, maybe starts to believe that action is actually legitimate.”

Brooks was one of five protesters arrested after the group turned off the taps at ECan. They were all released with a warning.

“We opened the thing on the street and turned the tap off,” Brooks says. “Some people sat on the cover … a plumber came and turned on another tap. We went and borrowed some tools from some workers down the road, turned that off and sat on top of that one.

“We are deliberately doing things which we are not supposed to do, because we are saying the government is not doing what it is supposed to do,” Brooks says.

He and Drace are fully prepared to go to prison for their actions.

“We are talking about a dying planet … we face mass extinction, including human extinction. If, tactically, me being in prison is going to help [prevent] that, then lock me up.”

Dr Sea Rotmann is an activist with Extinction Rebellion and also a marine ecologist. Born in Austria, a land-locked country, she loves living on the south coast of Wellington.
ROSS GIBLIN/STUFF
Dr Sea Rotmann is an activist with Extinction Rebellion and also a marine ecologist. Born in Austria, a land-locked country, she loves living on the south coast of Wellington.

​Drace agrees it is “his duty.”

“It is the only honorable thing to do. To get out and fight.

“I don’t believe there is any chance we can stop global warming, but I think there is a big chance that we can delay it and let the next couple of generations at least have some kind of decent life.”

In England, members have described meditating and performing yoga in holding cells after protests. Co-founder Roger Hallam said: “The action itself is not as important as going to prison, which has cultural resonance, you might say.”

Not everyone in the movement feels that way. Marine scientist Sea Rotmann runs a consultancy and her work involves international travel.

“It would be career limiting if I was … arrested or convicted because all of my work is with international governments … for the work I do – which I think has a lot of benefit in terms of finding solutions – I need to be able to travel.”

New Zealand police say there is no ‘national operation order’ for Extinction Rebellion.

But a spokeswoman added: “Our role is to ensure the lawful right to protest while allowing members of the public to go about their daily business safely, and we will respond appropriately to any issues regarding disorder or public safety that may arise.

“We urge anyone planning or undertaking protest activity to keep the safety of themselves and others at the forefront of their minds.”

Torfrida Wainwright has been a climate change activist for more than a decade and says many people now feel "helpless".
GEORGE HEARD/STUFF
Torfrida Wainwright has been a climate change activist for more than a decade and says many people now feel “helpless”.

​Rotmann says joining Extinction Rebellion’s Wellington branch has been empowering.

But she says it’s unusual for a scientist to join a direct action campaign.

“Science is a profession which forces us to be overly conservative with how we describe our data and our facts and our modelling. We are not meant to be catastrophising, to be emotional, or show our frustration, anger and grief … I am a research consultant – not an academic. So, I am able to speak out.”

Rotmann says her scientific knowledge has left her distraught.

“I’ve been dealing with a lot of grief for many years. I have what many environmental scientists call pre-traumatic stress disorder which is the same as PTSD except you are having it because you know what is coming and you can’t do anything about it. You feel powerless.”

Like many of Extinction Rebellion’s key players, Rotmann has a background in activism. She is involved in court action over the extension of Wellington airport’s runway. Simon Oosterman, the group’s media liaison, is a seasoned campaigner and trade unionist who organised the first Starbucks pay strike, and was arrested for taking part in a naked bike ride to protest vehicle emissions.

Brooks and Drace campaigned against the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, with Brooks organising protests.

Rotmann, Drace and his fellow Christchurch team member Torfrida Wainwright, are all Green Party members.

But even though they are pushing the Government to do more, they don’t see a conflict with their party. Especially as Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has called climate change her generation’s “nuclear free moment.”

“It’s great leverage,” Wainwright, 68, a veteran feminist and climate campaigner says. “It is something we can use. We can say to her: ‘You are saying this and now act on it.’

“You couldn’t say that to John Key because he and Bill English denied there was a problem anyway. All you could do is beat at the walls.”

​Rotmann has twice stood as a candidate for the Greens.

“Extinction Rebellion is completely non-partisan and I think it is really important that it stays that way. But, in a lot of ways, the New Zealand Government is not as anti-environment, and is promoting climate change [action], in a way other governments aren’t.

“I mean, it would be different under a National government.”

Despite this affinity with the Government, the protests are demanding carbon neutrality by 2025, not the 2050 timeline proposed.

Climate Change Minister James Shaw says the rebels aren’t alarmists, and he gets their frustrations.

“They are deeply concerned that we do everything we can to limit global warming to help limit the impacts of climate change,” he says. “I share those concerns … Our aim is to be carbon neutral by 2050. That goal is consistent with the science outlined in last year’s IPCC report about what’s needed to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels.

“We may find that solutions and the momentum of change to low emissions options enable us to meet that net zero goal sooner than 2050, in which case I hope future governments will want to move faster.”

He says he is concerned about public safety and property.

“I understand the organisation’s depth of feeling about climate change and their commitment to ensuring the issue of climate change is not ignored.  Civil disobedience is a longstanding means of drawing attention to issues of public concern. All I would ask is that they do not put themselves or others at risk of harm through their actions.​”

Drace remains frustrated and wants the Government to immediately halt all oil exploration – not just new permits

“The Government will say ‘oh, we are doing all we can’ and yet nothing significant, nothing effective is happening,” he says. “And so there is a widespread feeling that is growing dramatically – and the students’ strike is part of this.”

Next week, school children across the world will go on strike, part of a growing international youth movement inspired by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg. Extinction Rebellion Christchurch members have been working closely with local kids.

Drace ran a half-hour workshop for the junior demonstrators, taking them through planning and advertising, dealing with police, avoiding trouble and even which spray paints and stencils to use on their placards.

Twelve-year-old Lucy Gray is organising the March 15 rally in the city’s Cathedral Square. About 1000 students are expected to ‘strike’ in 20 cities – joining millions of children across 51 countries.

“The strike is a campaign for kids to be able to share their voice with the rest of the world because although we can’t vote, we still have a voice, and we need to be able to use that to get the government to realise this is our future, it’s matters to us and we want to stand up for our future,” the Beckenham pupil says.

While Extinction Rebellion’s message is doom-laden, Gray and her friends are much more positive.

“I am worried but I try to convert my anxiety and fear into action because the more action we have, the more we can do.

“I try and stay positive because if we let it drag us down we are not going to have energy to do the things we need to do, we are not going to have that fire inside us that we need to keep burning.”

 

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