NATURE PODCAST

Podcast Extra: From climate lawyer to climate activist

After three decades of climate advocacy, renowned IPCC lawyer Farhana Yamin decided to join Extinction Rebellion – she tells us why.

Farhana Yamin explains why she decided to join Extinction Rebellion.

2019 will likely go down as a pivotal year for the public discourse on climate change. It was the year of Greta Thunberg, the climate school strikes and Extinction Rebellion. The global activist movement has gained support from a range of influential people, including renowned environmental lawyer Farhana Yamin.

In this Podcast Extra, Nature's Chief Opinion Editor Sara Abdulla meets with Farhana to discuss why she ditched resolutions in favour of activism. This is an extended version of an interview originally broadcast in September.

Comment: Why I broke the law for climate change

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Transcript

Farhana Yamin explains why she decided to join Extinction Rebellion.

Interviewer: Sara Abdulla

This year marked a seismic shift in the public discourse surrounding climate change. Together, the school strikes led by Greta Thunberg and the Extinction Rebellion movement sparked conversation and controversy. My name is Sara Abdulla and I’m the chief opinion editor here at Nature. Back in September, I was on the Nature Podcast talking to Farhana Yamin, an international lawyer turned Extinction Rebellion activist. She made headlines this year, by gluing herself to the headquarters of the British petrochemical company Shell. Our conversation was much longer than what we aired on the show, and as the year draws to a close, we thought we’d bring you an extended version. As soon as I walked through her door, Farhana clocked my rucksack and whisked me off to a storage room in her garden. She had the same model, and it brought back some memories from her time with Extinction Rebellion.

Interviewee: Farhana Yamin

I’ll have to bring it inside because it’s very noisy out here. So, here it is, with lots and lots of black. I think it was called obsidian – the colour.

Interviewer: Sara Abdulla

Why is it absolutely covered in black paint?

Interviewee: Farhana Yamin

Because originally, I’d intended to throw a pot of black paint at the Shell building, which is what the other protestors had done – so it looks like an oil slick – but unfortunately, the lid came apart in my bag and as I was on my way to Shell, my husband said, ‘What’s that black stuff dripping out of your bag?’ and the whole of the bag was covered in a paint oil slick of its own. So, I’ve kept it because it also felt like it’s terrible to throw away a useable bag. I was waiting for it to dry somehow.

Interviewer: Sara Abdulla

And had you taken the lid off a bit for ease of throwing?

Interviewee: Farhana Yamin

Yes.

Interviewer: Sara Abdulla

Your rucksack is never going to be the same again.

Interviewee: Farhana Yamin

It’s not.

Interviewer: Sara Abdulla

The leaking paint led to Farhana changing tack. Instead of throwing paint, she glued herself to the building. We’ll hear more about that shortly, but first, I wanted to know why Farhana decided to join Extinction Rebellion.

Interviewee: Farhana Yamin

I joined Extinction Rebellion because I felt that the time for taking direct action – not just publishing reports, not just attending meetings, not just having seminars – was really now. I agreed with the philosophy that non-violent civil disobedience, where one takes risks with one’s own life or one’s own liberty or chooses to sacrifice and go into a police cell or to prison, shows to people the seriousness with which we should treat this issue, and I definitely decided to get arrested. I’d been saying that for several months. It was the reason I joined Extinction Rebellion, and I also thought really carefully about Shell and about the role of the oil companies and in my professional life, the major oil companies, the major fossil fuel companies in general, have played a really laggard role. They’ve paid a really deceptive role.

Interviewer: Sara Abdulla

Take me back to that day in April where you found yourselves on the steps of one of the world’s largest oil companies.

Interviewee: Farhana Yamin

So, on the day itself, all five digits of both hands stuck completely down on this pool of superglue, and in fact, I tried to sort of scratch my nose immediately because I had a hair in it and I realised I actually can’t move. And then it took the police officers about 20-30 minutes to prise each finger off, and then I was taken to a police station in Lewisham where there were many, many other activists. I stayed in the police cell for much of the night and then was released.

Interviewer: Sara Abdulla

So, we’ll come back to the impacts of your night in a cell in Lewisham. It’s not often spending a night in a cell in Lewisham can really change the world, but just the road that led you to those steps. You’re not the sort of person that would usually be gluing themselves to the steps of an international oil company. If we go back 10 years, 20 years, there’s words like Kyoto and Paris on your CV. Tell me about that journey. What does being an international environmental lawyer at the highest levels involve?

Interviewee: Farhana Yamin

I grew up in a very hopeful era and I felt very hopeful that law and science and economics could be used to design institutions and rules that were going to protect everybody. My work at these negotiations is to support the legal, procedural and strategic interventions by small island states. I often work for the Alliance of Small Island States or a combination of those and the least developed countries, and I give them advice on when interventions are needed, what the contents of those should be. I usually work in close association with the scientists that are also advising all of these countries. We prepare draft resolutions, as it were, draft COP decisions. We try and get those into the final decisions that the COP will take and make sure that they’re always in line with science, so it’s a lot of strategy advice, it’s a lot of procedural advice, it’s a lot of content also. And in Kyoto we created carbon markets. We used the best that economists were offering – carbon taxes, emissions permits – that we were going to create rules that would reduce emissions slowly, but in time for us to not get to this irreversible tipping point. The reason why all of those efforts then didn’t bear fruit and it is because many of the incumbents, especially the coal industry, especially the oil and gas industry, allowed, basically, these regulations to die on the vine. So, it wasn’t that the concepts were awful in the first place, it’s just that they weren’t allowed to function properly.

Interviewer: Sara Abdulla

So, the volte-face that you’ve been through this year is kind of wholesale. You’ve gone from crafting carbon taxes and carbon markets and levers inside of international governments to writing in the pages of Nature that these things allow the incumbents to just continue to pay to play the same old games. So, tell me about your kind of damascene – if it was a damascene moment – what galvanised you? What was the moment when you thought stuff this, I’ve tried to be a good woman for three decades. I’ve really tried, but I’ve reached the end of that particular road for now?

Interviewee: Farhana Yamin

I think the IPCC report, the 1.5°C report that came out in October, when it did finally come out, I think that was the tipping point for me. I’d seen leaked drafts of it, I’d been to a number of seminars and of course, the small islands had been pushing for the 1.5 to survive inclusion in the COP decision since Copenhagen, since 2009. So, I felt, goodness, it’s taken ten years almost to get to this point where the COP is going to receive this report and I think that something snapped in me about why we’ve got this report but it’s not going to get listened to. It will get ignored again, and it was too much. I felt like I had to do something different.

Interviewer: Sara Abdulla

So, you joined Extinction Rebellion. You lent them your skills, honed all-nighters at 22 COPs or most of the COPs and you moved the needle. Extinction Rebellion and the school strikes utterly changed the public discourse on the need for action. So, you’ve talked about April – what happened next?

Interviewee: Farhana Yamin

Greta came to the UK and met with all of the political leaders from every single party, asked those political leaders to do something and also to talk to Extinction Rebellion. Extinction Rebellion then had meetings with the government and I coordinated a team of Extinction Rebellion rebels to be present at that meeting, and then a motion was passed which recognises that we are in a climate and environmental crisis and which calls on the government to take urgent action. So, it was the first time that a motion of this kind had been passed by a national government, and now more than half the councils in the UK have declared a climate and ecological emergency or a climate emergency.

Interviewer: Sara Abdulla

So, it was another massive professional success. So, you, on one track, you were lead author on three of the five IPCC reports, you helped craft Kyoto, you helped craft Paris, and then on your new track, you changed the law in the UK via direct action. So, that’s the kind of professional success, but on a personal level, one of the working titles for the piece that you’ve written for Nature was ‘No going back’. So, you’ve stepped away from XR now, Extinction Rebellion, can you just go back to being a lawyer at the highest levels?

Interviewee: Farhana Yamin

I hope so. I think so. I feel that most of the climate environment community that I was part of, the policy community and some of the green environmental NGOs that I worked very closely with were, in fact, very proud and I think Extinction Rebellion built on all of their work, actually. So, one of the most concrete things that happened is that Theresa May’s government then passed legislation making the UK one of the first countries to have a legally binding net zero by 2050 target, which had been worked on for decades, including by me, including by all of the environmental NGOs in this country, so it was a collective win for everyone.

Interviewer: Sara Abdulla

So, we mentioned that you stepped away from Extinction Rebellion. Why was that?

Interviewee: Farhana Yamin

I was exhausted, actually. I was really tired because it was non-stop and there was so much media attention. There was such intensity after May and it sort of carried on into June and I felt I needed a break.

Interviewer: Sara Abdulla

Having had a taster of overnight, more or less, change, does part of you worry that you could be back inside another airless committee room getting really cross with everybody?

Interviewee: Farhana Yamin

Yes, I do, a lot. So, I’m sort of training myself up to be more patient again and remember that I can’t just be a rebel inside the UN in that way. I’ll have to make sure that the countries whose future is at stake become more rebellious. Actually, my role is to make them shout and scream and not accept a less ambitious outcome. So, I feel I understand what my role as a rebel inside will be and I hope that members of the public, other professionals, will keep on rebelling in their roles, wherever they find themselves.

Interviewer: Sara Abdulla

There is a scab I keep picking at which is this issue of when you go back into the corridors of power and when you’re back in the next COP in Glasgow, do you feel like your status as an impartial giver of knowledge and advice will have been altered by 2019?

Interviewee: Farhana Yamin

I think so, and I haven’t been to the negotiations since my arrest and since my involvement in Extinction Rebellion became public, so I feel a little bit of trepidation as to what that will mean. You’re no longer neutral about the outcomes. You are nailing your colours to the mast and I feel okay about that because I feel everyone should be pro-climate action – it isn’t something to be neutral about – but I recognise that putting your head above the parapet, being very public, especially in this way, and also saying that I’m willing to accept the consequences of breaking the law, that is an uncomfortable place because I don’t want to support lawbreaking and lawlessness either. I’m intently a rule-bound person. I believe in rules. I just believe that the rules have let us down and so civil disobedience always involves breaking very specific, limited rules, accepting the consequences of breaking those rules, facing up and going to court for those rules and accepting that actually the system itself can rectify and move to a higher normative status. So, Ghandi and Martin Luther King and the suffragettes, in the end, all moved the fundamental values and rules that were then totally misaligned. That’s why there are statues of Nelson Mandela, Ghandi and Millicent Fawcett at Parliament Square.

Interviewer: Sara Abdulla

So, many of the people who read your writings and who listen to your speeches will be thinking what should and could I do and that is the same whether they’re the lead author on the next IPCC report or whether they’re one of our children. What can I do? That’s what everyone is asking.

Interviewee: Farhana Yamin

Yeah, I think definitely make all the personal lifestyle changes that we’ve been talking about and that are reported in Nature as being important. So, we’ve cut down, as a family, meat eating. We’re basically shifting to a plant-based diet. I’ve stopped buying clothes altogether. I haven’t bought any new clothes apart from one jacket for a year, almost a year now, and it feels good because it’s also accepting that you’re not tied to consuming the whole time and it frees you up from that cycle of consumption and feeling good. But I think these individual changes – less flights, less meat, less of a carbon footprint – are, in the end, dwarfed by what we need to do which is to really turn our political and economic systems around so they don’t end up incentivising nature-destroying activities forever. That’s at the heart of it. We’ve put in place systems that we can’t even see anymore because they define the fundamental values, GDP growth, endless consumption, and it sounds very radical but we have to really stop looking at our wellbeing tied to this acquisition of stuff, a lot of which is produced and thrown away and which is literally causing pollution and depletion and which is nearly always based on infringing the human rights of other people.

Interviewer: Sara Abdulla

So, just one final thing. It can feel very daunting for people – the idea of being an activist or being an upstander not a bystander, as you’ve said. The young woman who went to qualify and got told off for wearing trousers, the young Farhana, what would she say to you now? What sort of advice would you give to somebody who was at the beginning of their career, like her, facing all sorts of barriers, daunted by the mountain yet to climb?

Interviewee: Farhana Yamin

Yeah, I feel I sort of focus too much on my professional world and distance myself or forgot that actually you need to change in your own life and you need to change your own behaviours and you need to be what we call prefigurative or to live the kind of life that you are asking others to join you. And I think we just had no idea of the scale of damage that was being done, so we’re much better informed now. So, I would say keep yourself informed. It’s really important to not lose hope. I think hope is a really important component. I think we’re compelled. It’s a moral duty to be hopeful.

Interviewer: Sara Abdulla

You did do a whole load of other things and it’s now okay to wear trousers while you’re doing it so progress happens.

Interviewee: Farhana Yamin

It is! Yeah, I can’t believe. There is so much that’s happened in the last 30 years. It makes me very hopeful that we can change.

Interviewer: Sara Abdulla

That was Farhana Yamin. You can read the Comment piece she wrote in Nature at nature.com/farhana.