‘Civil disobedience next’: Is protest on air pollution now essential?

Peter Knapp, a Doctoral Student at London’s Imperial College, echoes the sentiments of former-British Medical Journal editor, Dr. Fiona Godlee. Non-violent direct action is now essential to improve air quality. Here’s why. 

We have held petitions. We have had open letters from the UN. We have lobbied councils, mayors and the government. We have even had tighter guidelines on air pollution set by the World Health Organisation. But what difference has this really made?

Granted, the Ultra Low Emissions Zone in London delivered a 36% reduction in NO2 in the first six months after its launch in 2019, but 97% of the country still breaches at least one of the WHO air pollution limits, and half of the UK’s 40,000 deaths from PM2.5 in 2019 could have been avoided if the UK had met WHO guidelines. Current government policies show the UK’s air will remain illegal beyond 2030. So what else can we do?

On Wednesday 14th September 2022, the WHO signed a worldwide call to action for governments around the world to develop and implement a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty. Calls like this are not new; around two-fifths of IPCC authors have signed petitions or letters calling for action and a quarter report having taken part in protests.

Getting our government to listen and act upon this requires action from the nation. Otherwise, these calls to action will be simply ignored and our trajectory towards climate catastrophe and worsening global air pollution through wildfires and increasing burning of fossil fuels will continue. We need civil disobedience to trigger the change.

white and black ship on sea under white clouds

The three years I spent in Beijing led me to start a PhD in air quality, but I was disheartened at what little effect reports, papers or petitions made in terms of both air quality and fossil fuel burning. I went on a great personal journey and once I had learnt the barriers to change were business, politics and the media, I knew direct action was the only viable option left to stop runaway catastrophe unfolding.

The UK’s inaction on home insulation has left us vulnerable to the skyrocketing gas prices that will likely lead to a national ‘airpocalypse’ from wood burning this winter. Similarly lacklustre efforts in reducing the effects of the climate crisis mean time is short to achieve a liveable and sustainable future. The urgency is missing; many believe we have decades to act. Instead, as the world is repeatedly hit with record breaking floods, heatwaves and droughts, governments have set course for 3.2°C of warming by licensing more oil and gas, while scrapping home insulation and onshore wind farms.

Here is the good news: by targeting both fossil fuels and deforestation, we will be cleaning up our air and, in turn, help tackle the climate crisis threatening our civilisation. The enormous challenges of food insecurity, air pollution, mass extinctions, wildfires, droughts, floods, pandemics, disease, sea-level rise and globally declining mental health can all be addressed by focusing on fossil fuels and deforestation. But how?

Further large-scale engagement in non-violent direct action, targeted at the phasing out of fossil fuels and overconsumption, would force the government’s hand. Civil disobedience is the next logical step, and it needs scientists, doctors, nurses, teachers, and whole rafts of society to be involved to prevent societal collapse and to make the future a place worth living, for us and our children.

Activist groups, such as Doctors for XR, Medact and Health for a Green New Deal are taking steps such as protesting at Downing Street and the Treasury in June 2022. As Dr Fiona Godlee, former editor of the British Medical Journal (BMJ) said during this action: ‘The government has twice ignored the medical profession’s pleas to stop propping up the toxic fossil fuel industry with taxpayers’ money, so they leave us no choice.

‘Our political leaders are neglecting their duty of care to the young people of this country whose futures are now at risk, so we as health professionals feel morally obliged to protest on their behalf”.

Participation in non-violent direct action will lead to the change that we desperately need.

Image: (Top) Peter Knapp / (Middle) Chris LeBoutillier / (Bottom) Paulina Milde-Jachowska


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