While the coronavirus pandemic has laid waste to hundreds of thousands of lives and irreparably damaged the world economy, there is one glimmer of positivity to take from the crisis: the clear, impossible-to-argue-with evidence of just how much impact can be made to the climate if governments are willing to put in the work. According to The Economist magazine, daily greenhouse gas emissions in the first week of April were 17% lower than the same week last year, and the International Energy Agency expects global industrial emissions to be 8% lower than they were in 2019. Needless to say, the pandemic has provided us with a something of a dress-rehearsal for dramatic governmental climate actions, should they happen.
As part of a country-wide action orchestrated by the wider Extinction Rebellion group, XR Reigate and Redhill protested against the expected return to the climate-damaging “normal” at 12 noon on Saturday 30thMay, outside Reigate Town Hall. With all involved wearing masks and social distancing, the protest (or, legally, set of solo protests; it was strictly nota “gathering”) had none of the clamour or chaos that those of its ilk often do (or did); this only added to its power. I was also pleasantly surprised to see just as many protesters over sixty as under thirty, proving once and for all that climate action is a universal problem affecting the whole human race.
Drawing people out of their homes and, for some, causing them to risk their lives, the protest had a particular resonance during lockdown, especially with climate change being pushed to the back of the agenda by Covid-19. One protester explained that the reason for the action was “to raise awareness. To show that Extinction Rebellion hasn’t gone away and the climate crisis hasn’t gone away. We (the world) have shown we can react incredibly quickly and do radical things. So we can react radically again.” She went on to say that “economic growth isn’t an end in itself,” and that this is an idea that has led to the immense damage of the climate caused by high global emissions; emissions that increase greatly as a result of exponential economic growth.
While the protest was small, it was a striking sight nonetheless; the placards were excellently designed, some people were wearing masks hauntingly adorned with hearts, and the social distancing gave the protest a more ordered, deliberate air. The small number of people and their socially distanced placement actually helped give each individual and their placard a clear voice. Seeing them standing by the road, relatively still and outwardly unmoved, put me more in mind of people standing vigil than of an angry rabble; an image which very much helps their cause.
Another protester, who gave his name as Roger Lockley, told me why the Town Hall was chosen as the location for the protest. “They (the local authorities) need to be doing something about NO2 and CO2 levels in the district. We’ve got two AQMAs (Air Quality Management Areas) here where the traffic is running normally.” He cites the location, on a busy road, as one linked to Reigate’s air quality, which has come to the notice of the group as an issue before (during the Air We Grieve protest before the lockdown). “So it’s a local issue as well as a global one?” I asked. He agreed. “The two are completely intertwined.”
Indeed, despite the seemingly tranquil, suburban nature of much of Reigate, it remains congested in many places even during lockdown; the fact that air pollution can be an issue even here, an area that to the naked eye isn’t very urban at all, says a lot about the scale of the problem. The high street and a section of Church Street have been designated AQMAs, and even the Reigate and Banstead council website admits that air quality is an issue that needs to be addressed (due to the town’s close placement to Gatwick and subsequent congestion).
The last protester I spoke to stated that lockdown has shown us that “a different world” is possible. “A world without the normal trappings of pollution. It’s made everyone more sensitive and aware that there is a world without those trappings.” He hopes that “we can let people remember that,” but adds cynically that “unfortunately people have very short memories.”
Despite the dread that the facts involved present, I left the area feeling uplifted. No one protesting had come across as disingenuous; the passion was culpable, as was the risk taken by many of the older protesters in stepping outside of isolation, masks or not, at a time when a disease that puts their lives at risk remains a very real threat. It’s nice to see that community spirit is still alive during this period of isolation.