For more than a week, a group called Extinction Rebellion (XR) has brought parts of London to a standstill, conducting sit-ins and blocking traffic. Activists belonging to the group glued themselves to trains and buildings; nearly 1,000 protesters were arrested.
While protests do generate headlines and foster a sense of urgency about their chosen issue, it's debatable whether disruption – of cities, commerce and the lives of thousands of commuters – will do any real good for climate change. Will it have any effect beyond annoying ordinary people and presenting the eco-warrior as an anarchist?
Sometimes, direct action by eco-groups can be enormously successful. In 1970, villagers in north India began the Chipko movement against reckless deforestation. "Chipko" means sticking to something; in this case, it was trees. The Chipko protesters, many of them women, became tree-huggers in an age before the 24-hour news cycle, social media and sophisticated advertising campaigns. They emerged victorious, with the Indian government banning the felling of trees in the Himalayan region for 15 years.
Granted, it was a different age, a simpler one in which campaigners raised local issues that were real to them. But it was also a difficult time to be an environmental campaigner. Then, the mantra of progress meant big civil engineering and industrial projects were considered a social good. And the lack of public awareness about the long-term effects of such projects often made it easier for governments to ignore dissent.
Accordingly, the XR disruption in London and the YouthStrike4Climate students' march across the UK in February have more advantages than Chipko. But they are also hamstrung. The issue they raise is so vast, composed of many structural problems, requiring multiple actors to work in sync across economic sectors and political agencies. It might be stirring to hear the remarkably composed 16-year-old Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg tell XR protesters in London on Sunday night that "we will make sure that politicians will not get away with it for any longer", but what does that really mean?
All this raises the question: is there is a right way to campaign – vigorously and effectively – for green policies and practices? Actually, yes – and some of it requires working with local authorities. Consider the campaign of sorts that is underway in Milton Keynes, not far from London and the XR protests. Milton Keynes' Electric Vehicle Experience Centre is the result of an $11.7 million government investment and part of the town's efforts to get more motorists to drive electric cars. It provides drivers with electric car-charging options and even the chance to rent, for a small fee, an electric vehicle for a few days. The scheme is working so well that uptake of electric vehicles in Milton Keynes is twice the UK average.
Clearly, localism is the way to go. It's a cause espoused by a new handbook, Legal Pathways to Deep Decarbonisation in the United States, co-edited by two American professors of environmental law, Michael Gerrard and John Dernbach. It lays out how federal, state and local authorities, as well as private enterprise, can legally reduce their carbon footprint. It addresses technical and policy pathways for reducing US greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80 per cent from 1990 levels by 2050. In 35 chapters, the professors cover strategies for energy efficiency, conservation and fuel-switching; electricity and fuel decarbonisation. The message is simple and clear: deep decarbonisation is achievable using laws that exist or could be enacted. Mr Gerrard, director of Columbia University's Sabin Centre for Climate Change Law, recently said law firms and lawyers across the US are signing up for the massive project to prepare legal instruments and model ordinances for local and state bodies to decarbonise. California and 23 other states – half the US economy – have signalled readiness to take action, he added. It is legally and politically possible to bring about effective, small-scale change at the local level, Mr Gerrard said, despite the Trump administration's refusal to pursue climate-friendly measures nationwide.
Some might say it is pointless to look to governments – national or local – to address climate change. Ms Thunberg from Sweden has been especially scornful of politicians’ “beautiful words and promises”. But back in 1990, Margaret Thatcher was the first high-profile politician to use the world stage to insist “we must remember our duty to nature before it is too late…and in particular the risks of global warming”. Although Mrs Thatcher became a climate change denier after stepping down as prime minister, Britain’s move towards clean electricity has been steady – only four per cent comes from coal today, compared to 50 per cent in the 1970s.
And a clutch of diverse governments – from wealthy Luxembourg to developing Ethiopia – have set carbon neutrality as a goal to be achieved within the next decade.
Last week US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said, in an eminently watchable seven-minute video, that our planet’s future has not been written yet and “we can be whatever we have the courage to see".
She’s right. And besides, hope and collaboration is a better way to go than anger and confrontation.