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"Is Climate Activism Working?": a panel discussion at the Southbank Centre

Photo by Alisdare Hickson (licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

“...Let’s turn the fierce force of our love / To saving life on this planet / March and sing / And do the tough thing…,” recites Ben Okri from his latest book Tiger Work as a prologue to the panel discussion titled “Is Climate Activism Working?”. As a part of Southbank Centre’s climate crisis-focused summer programme Planet Summer, the forum raises the question of whether climate activists’ disruptive measures are effective ways of communicating climate emergency, or counterproductive actions that might alienate the public from the discourse. Four climate advocates, in their own rights, dissect this rather heated topic in Queen Elizabeth Hall at the Southbank Centre.

Chair of the debate Ritula Shah begins by welcoming the speakers: Phoebe Plummer, a Just Stop Oil activist; Tom Harwood, a deputy political editor of GB News; Ben Okri, a Booker Prize-winning novelist and poet; and Dr Rupert Read, the co-director of the Climate Majority Project. Each speaker is given three minutes to present their argument for the titular question, “Is Climate Activism Working?”. After which, the debaters respond to each other and the questions from the audience.

Phoebe Plummer starts the discussion by questioning the debate prompt itself. She says, “I don’t think we should be asking the question “Is Climate Activism working?”. I think we all need to be talking about why there is such an urgent need for action on the climate crisis.” By referencing an estimation on climate refugees in 2030 published in Nature Sustainability journal, she earnestly argues that ordinary people are taking radical actions to convey climate emergency since the government is willingly making decisions such as launching new fossil fuel licences that will worsen what is already a dire situation.

While listening to her speak, I find myself sympathising with Phoebe Plummer in some aspects. Her anger and frustration with the government’s actions fuelling the climate crisis and their inaction towards combating it might be a little too familiar to young people who are struggling with climate anxiety.

From then on, Tom Harwood presents his perspective by celebrating how much the UK government has done to decrease the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere since 1990. Afterwards, he lists climate action agreements the UK has pledged to before the Just Stop Oil group formed. He weaves his overt appraisal of the UK government for how much they have already done with his disapproval of the radical activist group Just Stop Oil. Moreover, he contends that such “extreme” activism could have a polarising effect. Harwood rhetorically asks, “...could it be that people start to question the need for Net Zero more than they currently do because this [radical activism] politicises a debate that currently holds consensus in this country?”.

This pat on the shoulder for doing the bare minimum does not come across as a testament for climate action but an excuse for negligence of climate responsibility. Also, Harwood’s distrust in the public that people would be dissuaded from the possibility of having a sustainable future warns us about how vulnerable our mentality can be.

Photo by Marcus Spiske (licensed under Unsplash License)

A former Extinction Rebellion spokesperson Dr Rupert Read begins his argument by responding to the preceding speech with the old phrase “Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics”. He states that if the calculation is done correctly, the amount of CO2 reduction the UK has done is less than 10%. Similar to Plummer, he rejects the question and reframes it to whether activism is the only approach or not. Read recognises that most people are not activists, which does not mean they are ignorant of the climate crisis. Far from it, he says the Climate Majority Project believes that “there is a silent moderate majority in this country which is yearning to know what to do to put right the terrible wrongs that our government and our civilisation are currently engaged in.” Thus, he advocates for implementable climate actions and adaptation to the new climate on a community level. He believes that individuals campaigning for a change of action in their workplaces and communities will amount to making a big difference.

Ben Okri finally answers the debate question, “Is Climate Activism Working?” by saying that it has to exist for the necessary actions to be initiated. He reminds us that every social rights movement began with a radical action. From Suffragettes to Nelson Mandela, activists have always been confronted with the question of whether their actions are fruitful or counterproductive. Okri expresses his annoyance with such doubts by professing, “I think the level of the question being asked for those who are trying to draw attention to it is unfortunately rather pathetically small.” An all-encompassing change begins with activism that grasps people’s minds and hearts; hence, in order for there to be a sustainable earth that involves every breathing being, people need to feel the urgency, which is why activism has to exist and evolve. The novelist says, “ [activism] has to catch our imagination to annoy us, to irritate us, to keep the issue constantly in our mind and above all to saturate the atmosphere, so that this issue is completely unavoidable.”

In the midst of these strong arguments for climate activism, we also need to acknowledge the inconveniences such disruptive acts are causing to the common people. Disturbances that occurred from the blocked roads and bridges indeed reveal that the civilians are the ones who bear the brunt of the government’s failure in climate action. As such, Tom Harwood’s concern about climate activism’s potential polarising effect proves to be relevant.

While the measures are distressing, the cause of climate activism should not be overlooked. One could disapprove of activist groups’ methods; however, we cannot reject the idea of living on a habitable planet in the future. As Phoebe Plummer responds, “Just Stop Oil’s disruption will end the moment that the government makes that statement [ceasing the new oil, gas, and coal licences]”.

In essence, Southbank presents four distinct views on climate activism. A movement for sustainability cannot be achieved by only one approach. We need a plurality of voices and actions to save this planet. We need not debate about how to talk about the climate crisis but what to do to solve this issue. As Dr Rupert Read advocates, we ought to educate ourselves to prepare for the future and implement climate actions in our communities, whether that be neighbourhood, university campus or workplace. Lastly, engaging with climate crisis-related events might be the most straightforward action we can take. As Ben Okri eloquently portrays, “Collective change is only possible when we believe it on an individual level, so please support these events and spread the spirit.”


Edited by Lara Mae Simpson, Literature Editor


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