Extinction Rebellion organizer on how politics 'can’t save us' from climate breakdown

Carl Meyer
Amani Khalfan, a coordinator for Extinction Rebellion in Ottawa, at a protest on Oct. 18, 2019. Photo by Kamara Morozuk

October 29th 2019

Amani Khalfan gives a hearty laugh when she's asked what she thinks of Canada’s election results.

As a coordinator for Extinction Rebellion (XR) in Ottawa, Khalfan finds it difficult to see much daylight between the promises made by Canada’s federal political parties — even between those on the left.

“No political parties, even the NDP or Greens, have committed to acting as quickly as needed to reduce global emissions, and (ban) new fossil fuel infrastructure,” she told National Observer.

“We can’t keep fighting individual pipelines or projects. Extinction Rebellion is about system change. Extractive capitalism and colonization got us to where we are, and political processes can’t save us.”

Extinction Rebellion blocks the Laurier Bridge in Ottawa on Oct. 18, 2019. Photo by Kamara Morozuk

Net zero carbon pollution by 2025, or 2050?

In Ottawa, "political processes" are never far away.

Last week, a freshly re-elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canadians "sent a clear message" that "affordability and the fight against climate change are really clear priorities that they want this Parliament to work on."

During the campaign, the Liberals promised to "immediately" commit Canada to "legally-binding" net-zero emissions of carbon pollution by 2050 if re-elected. Meanwhile, the NDP called for a cut of 38 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, while the Greens called for a cut of 60 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.

None of that is good enough, XR says: they want net-zero emissions by 2025.

The reason, they say, is clear: time is running out for many species on Earth, yet progress on environmental policy has been too incremental. Extinction Rebellion's logo, an hourglass inside a circle, serves as a reminder that the clock is ticking.

A United Nations report this year concluded that over one million plant and animal species are threatened with extinction, "many within decades," and driven in large part by pollution and climate change. Mass extinction of wildlife will threaten humanity's food supplies.

Extinction Rebellion protesters hold up signs in Ottawa on Oct. 18, 2019. Photo by Kamara Morozuk

'Decentralized and non-hierarchical'

XR wants governments at all levels to tell the truth about the climate crisis and axe legislation that hinders action. And it wants a just transition led by a “people’s assembly” instead of politicians.

Their protests have disrupted events, occupied buildings and shut down parts of cities around the world, using non-violent civil disobedience to grab attention and generate support for tackling carbon pollution in a more serious way.

This month, organizers In Canada blocked traffic in Halifax, Toronto and Edmonton. In Ottawa, on Oct. 18, about 100 people showed up to block a bridge in the downtown core.

Police were present when Khalfan and others closed off the Laurier Bridge with a giant sign that read “Act Now” and a banner that said “Truth demands action.” Ottawa police were aware of the group’s plans beforehand and acted very hands off, Khalfan said.

XR’s demonstrations aren’t always so calm. In London, U.K., protesters identifying with the group clashed with angry commuters two weeks ago after gluing themselves to trains.

Extinction Rebellion is “decentralized and non-hierarchical,” Khalfan explained; it faced overwhelming opposition from within the movement about the London train tactic. She said she personally believed blocking public transit wasn't an ideal move.

Still, the movement has managed to "change public perception and awareness of the climate emergency much faster and to a much greater degree than any organization I’d seen before," she said.

Green Party leader Elizabeth May speaks to media after the French-language leaders' debate in Ottawa on Oct. 10, 2019. Photo by Andrew Meade

May: 'Critical that Canada assume a leadership role'

The Liberals say they want to do more in Canada. “The planet is burning and people are taking to the streets to demand stronger action to fight climate change...we must step up," Steven Guilbeault, then a Liberal candidate and now an elected MP, was quoted as stating in September.

But the party can no longer pursue any green agenda alone: they will need to partner with at least 13 MPs from other parties to achieve a 170-member majority vote in the House of Commons and pass legislation.

Those 13 votes could come from any combination of elected members from the other parties, including 32 Bloc Québécois, 24 NDP and three Greens.

The Liberals could also try to obtain votes from any of the 121 Conservatives. Michael Chong, for instance, a Tory MP who was re-elected on Monday, has said he agrees there is a climate emergency. (Chong and other Conservatives voted against a motion in the previous session of Parliament to declare that emergency; Chong said it amounted to empty rhetoric.)

Last Thursday, Green Party leader Elizabeth May said none of the three Green MPs would hold any confidence in the government’s grip on power, unless it tightens its carbon pollution targets beyond what was set in 2015.

“To improve humanity’s chances of survival, it is critical that Canada assume a leadership role, first ramping up our own ambition and then pushing for more ambition overall in global negotiations,” May wrote to Trudeau in an open letter.

A flag is raised at the Extinction Rebellion event in Ottawa on Oct. 18, 2019. Photo by Kamara Morozuk

'People can expect to see much more'

Khalfan said XR does not engage with partisan politics. It just wants governments to take the climate crisis with the urgency it requires.

“We’ve had decades of environmental campaigning, and (yet) things are getting worse. Emissions are still going up. It’s come to a point where we have no choice but to force governments to pay attention and ask people to join us," she said.

The Ottawa group is planning to carry out further events in order to do this.

“I can say that XR is growing pretty quickly in Canada, and that one of the main things about XR’s civil disobedience model is that it’s important to have a lot of people, and to go to the capital city, and to break the law, and to stay there in an occupation for as long as you need,” said Khalfan.

“People can expect to see much more long-term, active sit-ins and takeovers of important political and business districts next year.”

[Top photo: Amani Khalfan, a coordinator for Extinction Rebellion in Ottawa, at a protest on Oct. 18, 2019. Photo by Kamara Morozuk]