Why I swapped UN negotiations for direct action

Farhana Yamin is an international climate change lawyer who swapped negotiating rooms for street protest. Frustrated by the failure of official action to match the scale and speed of what was needed, she decided to change her own behaviour and use non-violent direct action to campaign for system change. Also a speaker at the Responsible Science conference 2019, here she explains why she changed tactics.

Article from Responsible Science journal, no.2; online publication: 1 September 2020

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Last year, I superglued my hands to the pavement outside the headquarters of the oil company Shell in London, surrounded by dozens of policemen. Once unstuck, I was arrested for causing criminal damage. I have been a lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for three of its five assessment reports, and an adviser in the United Nations climate negotiations for almost 30 years.

Why did I, an international environmental lawyer, break the law? Having spent three decades failing to get governments to pay attention to the climate crisis through advocacy at the highest levels, I felt that activism was now crucial. I wanted to show how ridiculous it is that a law-abiding (indeed, law-making) mother of four should be handcuffed while the world’s major polluters remain unaccountable for ecocide.

My arrest was part of a wave of peaceful protests against the UK government in April 2019, organised by the global movement Extinction Rebellion, or XR. It uses non-violent civil disobedience to demand radical action to tackle what many of us now refer to as the climate emergency.

I coordinated XR’s political strategy team for much of 2019. My role was to find ways to build momentum across the party spectrum and organize negotiations with government. I helped XR meet with various political parties and was pleased our protests lead to the UK Parliament declaring a climate and ecological emergency in May 2019.

I’ve now returned to my profession: helping governments of developing and developed countries to implement commitments under treaties such as the 2015 Paris Agreement to stay on track for the well below 2°C and safer 1.5°C temperature goal. Countries are due to submit new targets and plans ahead of the UN Summit on climate change in Glasgow, UK (now re-scheduled to November 2021). But the larger countries and historic emitters are dragging their feet. My focus is on helping people understand how they can support vulnerable countries and communities fight to enhance global ambition and hold larger emitters to account. I am also working closely with activists and local authorities to set up pop-up “Think and Do” eco spaces in their communities to design new projects and policies. Bottom up action can pressure governments to act and citizens come up with faster, more effective solutions, including by testing behaviour change.

Global treaties and national laws provide a crucial framework for action. But sadly, weak legislation and tweaks to ‘business as usual’ practices have not prevented environmental devastation. We need new kinds of collaborations and policy frameworks to challenge endless growth and consumption-based lifestyles. The current form of capitalism is toxic for life on Earth. It is based on the never-ending extraction of nature and an unjust appropriation of resources that belong to historically marginalized communities. In their current forms, green taxes and tradeable carbon permits let polluters pay to play the same old games.

The global economy must be fundamentally reconfigured into a circular system that uses fewer resources and is based on renewable technologies. The time for half measures has run out — as made plain by the 2018 IPCC special report on the impacts of a 1.5°C rise in global average temperatures. That’s why I chose to get arrested. That’s why I am working now with local communities in Camden, London, to pioneer new forms of living that are consistent with the circular economy and with deep cuts in emissions including from products we import from other countries like China and India. 

Talk of injustice, devastation, emergency and the need for radical change is far removed from the neutral vocabulary used by the scientific community. But these seemingly emotional terms now fit the facts — and they effect change. I’d rather be labelled ideological than mislead the public into complacency.

Many of my climate colleagues were surprised when I became an activist. But since my arrest, they have applauded what I, and thousands of fellow rebels, did in shifting the political discourse (see ‘Advice for potential activists’). Many others still question whether disruptive, mass civil disobedience is really necessary.

I believe it was and remains so. In large part, this is because it is producing the sorts of positive rapid result I could only dream of in my years of committee-sitting and draft-wrangling. We need to ramp up disruption because business as usual is not changing fast enough.

Disruptive force

Representatives of UK political parties on all sides congratulated XR for its festival-like actions that shut down large parts of central London. In just a year, XR put the need for global system change on the political map at the highest levels, confounding its detractors. In the United Kingdom, where XR was founded and is strongest, public support for climate action is now at record levels.

XR’s political strategy team met separately with the UK government, the Mayor of London and the opposition Labour Party. On 1 May, Parliament passed a non-legally binding emergency motion that recognized the climate crisis. A month later, it legislated a legally binding target of net zero greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050, making the United Kingdom one of the first countries to do so. The date is nowhere near soon enough, but this fast-tracking would never have happened without XR’s disruptive protests and the global student strikes on which they built, led by campaigner Greta Thunberg.

We need to value scientists and negotiators for the work they do. But we also need sustained, widespread, peaceful disruption and direct action. We as scientists need to also model the kind of behaviour change we are asking of others, but even more important is becoming more active in our profession and our local communities. Collectively, governments are way off their Paris commitments to keep temperatures well below 2°C and safer 1.5°C goal. We need to try a diversity of new tactics.

The old forms of campaigning and advocacy aren’t working fast enough. Is it any wonder that frustration is mounting?

Youth protest

Students are leading the charge, calling young people and adults to join a global climate strike. Greta Thunberg rightly lambasted world leaders gathered at a crucial UN summit in New York City, convened by UN secretary-general António Guterres in September 2019. The UK government is not on track to meet its current legal obligations to cut emissions under the 2008 Climate Change Act. (It still subsidizes fossil-fuel production and supports carbon-intensive investments in infrastructure, such as for a third runway at Heathrow airport.) This does not bode well for its ability to provide leadership ahead of the Glasgow summit.

In the United States, the global Green New Deal (GND) movement is gaining traction. It is supported by US senators Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Democrat, New York) and Bernie Sanders (Democrat, Vermont), as well as the youth movements Zero Hour and Sunrise, which share XR’s demand for a break with current politics. It is also gaining traction in Europe.

These campaigns can only succeed if more people join in — including professionals, such as scientists. It is harder to dismiss protests that have a broad base of support. Long-sought change can come about unexpectedly quickly under the right conditions.

Understandably, many professionals are wary of endorsing campaigns, let alone taking direct action. I still share some of their trepidation. Being an activist can be emotionally and physically draining, requiring long meetings and careful coordination of strategies, tactics and systems of support. But the same can be said of working on UN negotiations: I’ve lost count of the number of all-night meetings I’ve attended, with some negotiations turning into 48-hour marathons.

Plus, activists can risk their lives, as so many do in highly illiberal nations. And being an activist can threaten livelihoods: in law, as in science, a person’s credibility rests on perceived impartiality built through offering knowledge and advice in the form of books, peer-reviewed articles, policy reports and expert testimony. Not glue and placards.

For all these reasons, I anguished for a long time before thinking about getting arrested. For me being an activist is about much more than getting arrested. It is more about taking a stance and showing up for climate justice. It means not putting my identity as a migrant, a mother, a lawyer and concerned citizen into separate boxes and silos but tapping into all those identities and standing up for justice. And that means also lifestyle changes involving food, fashion, finances and flights for holidays.

Deeds not words

The trigger for my leap into direct action was the release in October 2018 of the IPCC’s grim special report comparing the impacts of a 1.5°C change in global average temperatures with higher rises. It landed during a time of personal, political and professional despair, brought about by bereavement, burnout, Brexit, Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement, and more.

For so long, I’d trusted that government actions are essentially evidence-based, and that our ‘normal’ electoral cycles are messy but ultimately safeguard long-term national and planetary interests. Like every other scholar, I’d churned out papers and policy reports in the hope that these would be used by campaigners and heeded by politicians.

On behalf of the small island states, I had worked since 2008 to get the UN climate negotiations to acknowledge that a 2 °C rise was too dangerous, and that it needed to enshrine the 1.5°C threshold demanded by the world’s most vulnerable countries and ecosystems. Still emissions rise; still the rhetoric is “well below 2°C”?

Rethink and reset

What we need is not system change or personal change — it’s both. Not street circus or government and industrial overhaul, but both. Not reform through revolution or the ballot box. Both.

The climate emergency we face now requires every one of us to question how we compartmentalize our professional, personal and political choices. That means acting differently in all three spheres and rethinking how to become audacious leaders in all aspects of our lives. Climate devastation demands us to be upstanders, not bystanders.

The era when we limited our jobs to researching, writing, presenting and throwing our reports over the ‘policy fence’, leaving it to campaigners and activists to implement their conclusions, is over. Is working in silos and factions and fretting only about tenure, citations and the next research grant really the best we can do? Professionalism and impartiality must not require us to be indifferent to the fate of the world.

Now that I am 54 years old with considerable capital— economic, social and reputational I havethe freedom to speak out, as a lawyer, an activist and a mother. Like all parents, I’ll do whatever it takes to keep my children safe. Right now, that means rebelling against a way of being that is destroying their future and by supporting activists, especially global youth strikers and frontline communities, to intensify their movements. Having power and status in the current system and refusing to challenge the rules hampers the co-creation of a better world. Building regenerative political communities — in which humans and nature co-exist — needs committed, courageous people to stand up for what they believe in, repeatedly, or a long time to come. I hope you join your local groups and set up your own “Think and Do” space.

Set up Your own Climate Think and Do Pop-Up!

I am often asked what are the most important steps individuals can take against the climate emergency? I say: join a movement, become an activist and get involved in politics. I am setting up “think and do” spaces to enable people to come together to make individual and collective change easier.

I think people should not be guilt tripped for not being able to live a zero-carbon life in a world that is saturated by carbon. I want industry and government to take responsibility for making it easier for me to live a greener, cleaner, healthier life based on climate justice principles. Having said that, I have made lifestyle changes focusing on the four “Fs”: Finance, Food, Flights and Fashion. I have switched my pension to ethical accounts. As a family, we have cut down on leisure flights and now travel by train & ferries. We have all switched our food to a mainly plant-based diet. I love fashion but no longer buy new clothes and get pleasure from upcycling and clothes swaps. I have found it easier to do these things as part of a local community that is thinking and doing things differently.

Setting up Camden’s Think and Do Climate Pop-Up is helping create bonds and projects to create a nicer and more convivial local environment. The creation of a new civic space is a direct follow on from Camden’s Citizens’ Assembly on the Climate Crisis held in July 2019 which resulted in 17 recommendations. At its Full Meeting on 7th October, the Council unanimously agreed to take forward all these recommendations.

Phase one of Think and Do from October to December 2019 has seen a disused café on Kentish Town Road converted into a welcoming space accessible to all, including families and school children. Around 80 events, talks and workshops, ranging from tree giveaways to clothes swaps and talks on climate justice have been held to support climate action in Camden. Phase 2 is about spreading the “think and do” model to other communities in the UK and worldwide. You can find out more at: https://www.thinkanddocamden.org.uk/

Farhana Yamin is an international climate change lawyer. She was a lead author of three IPCC assessment reports from 1994–2007 (Working Groups II and III), and a lead negotiator for the Alliance of Small Island States helping to formulate the Paris Agreement in 2015.

Farhana Yamin at SGR conference 2019

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