The latest report that charts the accelerating impacts of global warming, climate change, and mankind’s destructive impact on the natural environment lays out a grim future for over a million of the planet’s species. This warning follows hot on the heels of a Canadian government assessment that forecasts that Canada will warm twice as fast as the global average, and the startling 2018 IPCC report that meticulously laid out the evidence that even keeping global warming to 1.5°C will result in widespread social and economic disruption as climate-driven natural disasters increasingly bludgeon the planet.
The alarming report on global biodiversity published by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, presents the work of more than 450 experts on biodiversity who have laboured for the last 3 years to bring together the latest assessment of the deteriorating condition of the planet’s natural environment and its biodiversity.
Their stark conclusion is that human actions threaten more species with global extinction than ever before. An average of about 25 % of animal and plant species are threatened, suggesting that around 1 million species face extinction within a matter of decades unless action is taken to reduce the intensity of the main drivers of biodiversity loss.
The problem is not only climate change—which is judged to be the third most destructive influence on the biosphere. The main culprit is the way mankind has radically changed and destroyed the natural landscape. Seventy-five percent of the land surface has been significantly altered, 66 percent of the of the oceans are experiencing increasing cumulative impacts, and over 85 percent of wetlands have been lost. Across much of the tropics, 32 million hectares of primary or recovering forests were cut down between 2010 and 2015—an area half the size of France.
In the oceans, half of coral cover on coral reefs has been lost. The average abundance of terrestrial species in most major biomes has fallen by at least 20 per cent—a decline that appears to be accelerating. Population sizes of wild vertebrate species have tended to decline over the last 50 years on land, in freshwater and in the sea. Global trends in insect population are not known accurately but rapid declines have been well documented in certain regions. Researchers in 2017, warned of an “ecological Armageddon” after measuring a dramatic plunge in insect numbers across Germany. Using malaise traps to capture flying insects in 63 nature reserves, and measuring the weight of the captured insects, the data showed a decrease of 76% over a 27 year period, and a startling drop of 82% in the summer—when insect abundance would normally reach its peak.
The rate of global change during the last 50 years is unprecedented in human history. The most destructive drivers of these global changes are in land and sea use, direct exploitation of organisms, climate change, pollution, and the invasion of alien species. All are caused directly and indirectly by the way we mine the planet’s natural resources without a second thought, pump polluting chemicals into the air, and dump our trash onto the land and into the oceans.
It’s not surprising that in many countries increasing numbers of people, and especially young people, are outraged and appalled by the seeming inability of national governments to take strong action to change the way that the Earth is ruthlessly being exploited by powerful and influential industrial conglomerates and their lobbyists who continue to promote and support ‘business as usual’ when all the signs are that the planet is moving towards ecological collapse.
Extinction Rebellion was established in the United Kingdom in May 2018 with about one hundred academics signing a call to action. Since that time, several well-publicised civil disobedience events have taken place in London and around the world.
The movement quickly spread. In Australia, XR held a ‘Declaration Day’ on 22 March 2019 in Melbourne, Adelaide, Sydney, and Brisbane. Demonstrators demanded that governments and media declare a state of climate emergency. April 15 was declared Rebellion Day.
Demonstrations have taken place in 27 other countries including Ireland, Australia, Canada, France, Sweden, Germany, Colombia, and New Zealand.
On April 15 this year, XR activists occupied part of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, forming a human chain before being arrested. Similar actions were organised by XR groups in Berlin, Heidelberg, Brussels, Lausanne, Madrid and Melbourne. In New York City, also in April, an XR group of 300 gathered outside City Hall to demand that the City Council declare a climate emergency. Over sixty people were arrested after occupying the street and hanging banners from lampposts.
Not everyone agrees with civil disobedience, but what is the alternative when the natural environment is visibly deteriorating, a sixth extinction is demonstrably underway, global warming is causing widespread economic disruption, and yet national governments continually fail to act decisively?
At about the same time that Extinction Rebellion was beginning to organise, a schoolgirl in Sweden decided to take action. Greta Thunberg’s activism began in August 2018, when her solitary Skolstrejk för klimatet (“School strike for the climate”) protest outside the Swedish Parliament in Stockholm began attracting the media. It wasn’t long before she had a lot of support. In March 2019, an estimated 1.4 million students in 112 countries around the world joined her call in striking and protesting.
Declaring a Climate Emergency
Launched in Australia in 2016, a Declaration of Climate Emergency by municipalities is seen as a way to focus attention on local and regional governments, and to underscore the fact that municipalities have control over a substantial part of a country’s emission of greenhouse gases. In Canada, activists in Quebec succeeded in mobilizing community action that resulted in over 300 municipalities declaring a climate emergency, including Montreal. Elsewhere in Canada, Vancouver, Halifax, Edmunston, and Kingston have made similar declarations. More recently, the United Kingdom, Scotland, and Ireland have declared emergencies—the first time that national governments have taken this step.
Many observers have asked: what does it actually mean, to declare a climate emergency? In several municipalities, the declaration of a climate emergency has not resulted in additional action to reduce emissions—so it has been criticised as being ‘merely’ a symbolic gesture.
But symbolic gestures made at the right time and with the right level of support can have a huge impact on public perception, community engagement and mobilisation, and finally on government action. Just look at Greta Thunberg. Sitting alone outside Sweden’s parliament with a single placard was a solitary symbolic gesture by a young teenager. Fast forward a few months and over a million students around the world were mobilized in support of her campaign to goad governments into stronger action. If the time is right, symbolic gestures can spark stronger community action, galvanise governments, and ignite a global movement.
Moreover, many towns and cities have followed a Declaration of Emergency with a commitment to take more forceful action. Where plans to reduce emissions are already in place, targets have been brought forward. Instead of, say, an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050, the date has been moved forward to 2040 or even 2030, signalling the need to move much more aggressively to meet targets. Other municipalities have set targets of 100 percent renewable energy by 2035—an objective that requires the phasing out first of coal and then of natural gas. Some proposals are very specific. In Berkeley, California, the council is considering a proposal to to ban natural gas connections in new buildings, part of an effort to “make sure the city follows through on its 2018 declaration of a climate emergency.”
We are living in an era of disruptive social, economic, and ecological change driven ever more strongly by global warming and the changing climate. Decisive action by governments at all levels is essential. A Declaration of a Climate Emergency is a good first step. After that, community leaders will ask: Now tell us what you propose to do, and we will will tell you if it goes far enough.
The report on biodiversity and ecosystem services can be found here. For more on Extinction Rebellion, look here. To learn more about Greta Thunberg check out these sources.
See also: Landmark analysis documents the alarming global decline of nature. And: Warning of ‘ecological Armagedon’ after dramatic plunge in insect numbers here. And: Climate emergency declarations spread across UK after Extinction Rebellion. Look here