Despite decades of stark warnings, global leaders have failed to take the necessary action to avoid climate breakdown, with millions of people and animals now suffering the real consequences, and worse yet to come.
In his new documentary ‘Is It Time To Break The Law?’, Chris Packham meets activists and scientists to explore whether disruptive, law-breaking protest methods are justified to force governments to take action.
A naturalist, TV presenter, author and wildlife photographer, Packham, 62, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome in his 40s, has campaigned on animal welfare, conservation and environmental issues. Being so outspoken has had a personal cost, including death threats and dead crows hung outside his home in the New Forest, southern England.
What do you think breaking the law in climate activism can achieve where other methods haven’t?
The protest movement has done a very good job at bringing the climate to public attention. But has it changed the way we’re approaching the climate breakdown as individuals or policy-makers? There is a good case to say that it hasn’t.
In 2019, when Extinction Rebellion took to the streets of London, a climate emergency was declared. We now have a UK government that says it’s going to grant oil and gas licences in the North Sea and is opening a new coal mine. Those things go against scientific advice, which is to leave fossil fuels in the ground.
Over the course of ‘Is It Time To Break The Law?’, I meet protesters and social scientists and ask ‘Is the protest movement working?’
Greta Thunberg comes across extremely well. Other people in the programme include Lord Deben, who is the retiring Chair of the government’s Climate Change Committee; Roger Hallam, one of the founders of Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil; and Andreas Malm, a Swedish academic who wrote the book How To Blow Up A Pipeline.
Activists are already breaking the law in protests, aren’t they?
Yes. One reason is that, in a very short period of time, the UK government has changed the law to make it more difficult to protest.
We find ourselves in a worrying position – we should have a democratic right to free speech and protest, but our ability to exercise that right is being constrained to the point where people are now breaking the law by standing on a pavement holding placards.
Two or three years ago, I could’ve stood on a road with a placard, and not been arrested. The likelihood of going to jail might have been negligible. Now we’re seeing protesters jailed for that sort of disruption.
Is the global failure to tackle climate change as simple as industries, such as oil and gas, and governments putting money before nature?
We’ve got good evidence that the fossil fuel companies knew about climate change and did everything they could to suppress that knowledge, so they could continue with bad business as usual. We know that in various places they’ve been supported wholeheartedly by politicians. And that continues.
I honestly think that if the ‘Independence Day’ film came true and a giant space ship appeared and started blowing up cities, in the space of a week the world would be collaborating to fight back.
Psychologically, we’re not good at dealing with incremental danger. Something needs to jump up in our face and explode for us to be scared enough to do something. With climate change, there’s no giant space ship.
But the public does respond to crises. If you look at times of enormous global stress, such as the Second World War, the response was astonishing in terms of how people reacted to combat a significant threat to their futures.
Activists in the Suffragette and Civil Rights movements broke the law, as did Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. Do you see climate activism in a similar vein?
I do. There are clear parallels between those movements. People think of those movements as non-violent direct action, a ‘Blue Peter’ view of them. But within the Civil Rights movement, where Martin Luther King might be at the forefront, you also had Malcolm X. Alongside Nelson Mandela fighting Apartheid, you had people blowing up trains and bombing.
There was always a ‘radical flank’.
Blocking roads, interrupting sports events and disrupting people’s lives appears to be putting people off the climate crisis. What are your thoughts?
A recent study by American scientists James Ozden and Markus Ostarek looked at what the radical flank effect achieves.
What we see is that eventually people say ‘I don’t agree with those Just Stop Oil people, they’ve ruined my morning, I’m late for work, my kids are late to school’, or, more seriously, ‘I’ve missed a funeral’. But they see that they have got a point. They can’t bear their methods, so they support what they see as more moderate groups.
When Just Stop Oil was blocking traffic, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth received significant spikes in support and donations.
Do you wrestle with the decision to take international flights for work, such as your recent ‘Earth’ series, when you know air travel is harmful?
Typically, when we made those documentaries in the past, we’d have gone to five or six locations. In the course of producing ‘Earth’, we went to one or maximum two per programme. We minimize the number of people who travel. When we get there, we all car share. We do everything in our power to reduce our carbon footprint.
The industry is moving. It’s very important that my part of it – the natural history, science and environment side – is the part that should be pushed hardest. We are making those changes.
Do you think humanity is at risk of extinction?
We’ll see sweeping changes pretty quickly to the way we can live on this planet. The human species will survive. Will it live in the way that we live now? No, it simply can’t. But that doesn’t mean that you and I need to compromise the quality of our lives.
We need to change the way we perceive the quality of that life. We may not be able to do some of the things that we previously took for granted when we were younger, but it doesn’t mean we can’t be healthy and happy and live on a healthy and happy planet.
We’re going to go through a rough patch. We’ve now, unfortunately, set that course for ourselves. But our species solves every problem, such as coming up with drugs when we need them. But we seem to only do it at the last minute. That’s what’s causing me sadness.
You’ve received death threats and abuse for your views. Has that taken a toll on you?
There is an attritional impact. Sometimes I’m telling someone about something that’s happened, and it’s almost like they have to give me a slap around the face and say ‘Chris, it’s not normal for people to have to live like this’. We have grown used to it. Every now and again, you wake up, and go ‘Oh my goodness’.
But in terms of my resolve, it’s undaunted. It impacts not just me, but my family: my partner, Charlotte, and my stepdaughter, Megan. We all suffer from the abuse. But they’re steadfast too. We all know what we have to do.
I expect it’ll get worse before it gets better. But I just have to keep at it. I don’t have a choice.
What changes would you like to see globally?
I want our decision-makers – those we’ve elected to represent us – to start acting immediately and urgently to protect us all. That means transition. We know we can’t just turn off the taps. Everyone won’t stop eating meat overnight – that would bankrupt lots of farmers, which isn’t good. No one is going to turn off the taps for oil and gas overnight – we’d have no energy tomorrow and we couldn’t boil a kettle. But what we have to do is instigate a rapid transition.
That transition requires patience, because not everyone is going to move at the same time in the same direction. To facilitate that, we need kindness. There’s no point in me getting on my high horse and saying ‘I’ve stopped eating meat – therefore I’m a better person than you’.
If I can say ‘I’ve stopped eating meat for environmental and animal welfare reasons, and for my own health’, other people might try it for one or two days a week. That movement in a positive direction is something that needs to be celebrated, not criticized.
The key words here are ‘transition, patience and kindness’.
Chris Packham: ‘Is it Time to Break the Law?’ aired on Channel 4 on 20 September. ‘Earth’ is available on BBC iPlayer. www.chrispackham.co.uk