Activists with Extinction Rebellion, a new environmental advocacy group, don’t hesitate to describe the consequences of failing to stop climate change in stark terms. If the world doesn’t drastically curb greenhouse gas emissions in the near future, says Extinction Rebellion Denver’s Rick Visser, global warming “will lead to mass starvation, mass migration and mass death.”
That’s not hyperbole. Scientists estimate that on their current trajectory, carbon emissions will cause average global temperatures to rise by as much as four degrees Celsius by the end of the century — a catastrophic level of warming that would leave billions of people around the world at greater risk of famine, disease, deadly floods, heat waves, wildfires, hurricanes and more. Even if many of the worst-case scenarios are avoided, the World Health Organization says, climate change could result in over 250,000 additional deaths per year between 2030 and 2050.
On Monday, April 15, Visser and other Extinction Rebellion Denver activists began a week of protests aimed at calling attention to the “existential threat” climate change poses to the planet and humanity itself. As Denver City Council convened for its regular Monday meeting, about a dozen activists staged a “die-in,” donning dust masks and protest signs and lying on the floor just outside council chambers.
As the die-in was being staged, other members of the group spoke during the council’s public-comment session, urging councilmembers to pass a resolution declaring a “climate emergency.” Over 400 local governments around the world have made such a declaration, according to The Climate Mobilization, an advocacy group.
“It seems to me like a good first step,” says activist Harry Gregory, who spoke to city council on Monday. “Once the public has been informed that the city council says we have a climate emergency on our hands, the next step is, okay, what are you going to do about it? It’s a lead-in to what needs to be done.”
Founded in the United Kingdom last year, Extinction Rebellion seeks to promote public awareness of the climate crisis and advocate for stronger mitigation policies through nonviolent direct action. Its "International Rebellion Week" is expected to feature demonstrations all around the world; more than 120 Extinction Rebellion activists were arrested in a series of street protests in London on Monday.
The group says it has spread to 49 countries around the world and at least 38 U.S. cities, including Denver, where activists began meeting in January. Gregory, who's been involved with climate activism for several years, says the group's formation, along with the arrival of other new organizations like the Sunrise Movement, has led to a new sense of urgency and momentum among local organizers.
“We’re having conversations that we didn’t have last year,” he says. “The frequency is increasing; it’s not just occasional actions. And it’s going to be ramping up throughout the year.”
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Monday's protest will be followed by a "Funeral for the Earth" demonstration on Wednesday, during which activists will march from U.S. Representative Diana DeGette's district office to the 9News building on Logan Street, in protest of "media outlets [that] have failed to adequately cover climate change in a meaningful way." Activists also plan to demonstrate near Fishback Park in downtown Denver on Saturday.
“We’ve known the science for the last thirty or forty years,” says Visser, "and it’s been very clear what the solution is. But we’ve gone backwards that whole time.”
Although elected officials in Denver and Colorado generally accept the science of climate change and support action to stop it, progress in reducing carbon emissions has been slow. Denver's citywide emissions have remained flat for most of the last decade, with modest cuts offset by the city's continued growth, and things aren't much different at the state level. With time running out to begin making drastic changes, activists with Extinction Rebellion Denver and other groups aim to keep up the pressure on elected officials during this week's protests and beyond.
“There’s no willpower on the part of the policymakers,” Visser says. “And there’s a strong feeling within Extinction Rebellion that they’re complicit in undermining the conditions of human life as we know it.”