London – As activists erected the mast of a boat emblazoned with “act now”, hundred of climate change protesters gathered in front of the vessel blocking traffic on The Strand, one of the UK capital’s major arteries.
A similar boat, now a symbol of the Extinction Rebellion protests, blocked Piccadilly Circus in April when the climate activist group brought much of London to a standstill for 10 days.
The group kicked off a new round of demonstrations across the UK on Monday targeting five cities – London, Glasgow, Cardiff, Bristol and Leeds – with creative and civil disobedience action through to Friday.
They aim to cause disruption to raise awareness of the climate crisis and urge the government to enact policy measures aimed at achieving a net-zero carbon footprint by 2025. Action in each city focuses on a different theme, including “climate refugees” and rising sea levels.
In London, protesters at the Royal Court of Justice demanded the “legal system take responsibility in this crisis” and called for “ecocide” to become an internationally recognised crime.
“At the moment, the damage and destruction to our planet that continues day by day does so because it’s permitted,” Jojo Mehta, director of a campaign called “Stop ecocide: change the law”, told Al Jazeera.
Mehta, a longtime environmental activist, cofounded the campaign with Polly Higgins, a lawyer who died of cancer in April after spending a decade calling for ecological damage to be criminalised, so governments and corporations that are responsible could be held to account.
‘An achievable route’
She said such criminalisation could be “straightforward” at the international level. It would require an amendment to the Rome Statute, the treaty that established the International Criminal Court, adding ecocide to a list of existing international crimes.
“Any head of state that is a member, no matter how small, can propose an amendment to the Rome Statute, and there’s no veto to that,” Mehta explained.
“Once it’s tabled, it’s just a question of adding signatures. It’s an achievable route,” she added, before being called on board the boat, named after her friend, to deliver a speech.
As performers and speakers hit an improvised stage, some activists made banners while others glued their arms together, linking their hands with a black tube symbolising an oil pipe. Five police vans were positioned on the road nearby, blocking their route to Waterloo Bridge.
Following Extinction Rebellion’s previous round of climate protests, the UK Parliament declared a “climate emergency”, passing a non-legally binding motion tabled by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
In June, the UK was the first country to commit to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 – either by avoiding emissions or offsetting them with projects aimed at soaking up carbon dioxide. But Extinction Rebellion called this target too little, too late.
More than 1,000 people were arrested over 10 days in April.
As part of their strategy, the group asks volunteers to get deliberately arrested by causing maximum disruption so the issue will wind up in court.
Activists have staged “die-ins” at major London traffic points and glued themselves to trains and buildings, while causing 6,000 pounds ($7,500) in damage at the headquarters of oil giant Shell.
We need some sort of climate justice as we transition into a different kind of society
Melanie Nazareth, climate activist
Most of those arrested will be prosecuted, and the first 30 activists appeared in front of magistrates on Friday, charged with breaching the Public Order Act.
“We need some sort of climate justice as we transition into a different kind of society,” Melanie Nazareth, a 53-year-old lawyer at the London protest on Monday, told Al Jazeera.
“The UK led the way in the industrial revolution, bringing this system which has caused such environmental damage,” she said.
“We have a strong colonial past and we took a lot of the resources of the nations that now need this space to be able to develop so they don’t have to make that transition quite as fast, and we need to give them finances to be able to do it,” Nazareth added.
Extinction Rebellion also called for an international mobilisation beginning on October 7, just after a major climate summit at the UN headquarters in New York City. After the April protests, its presence has grown with local groups springing up around the world.
Nearly 200 countries signed the 2016 Paris Agreement aiming to limit global warming to well below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, while pursuing efforts to limit the rise to 1.5C.
But a report published by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in October warned just half a degree could make a huge difference to the lives of millions of people at risk of displacement linked to natural disasters.