Road to rebellion
Environmental lawyer-turned-activist Farhana Yamin talks to Chris Seekings about her journey from drafting international climate treaties to breaking the law
Bound in handcuffs and facing jail, Farhana Yamin was in unfamiliar territory after being arrested for her role in the Extinction Rebellion (XR) protests that brought London to a standstill last year. Rewind 30 years, and the environmental lawyer was embarking on a career that would help to deliver both the Kyoto Protocol and Paris Agreement. What led this law-abiding citizen to join, and help to coordinate, an international movement that is notorious for its disregard for authority?
Hitting a wall
In the 1990s, Yamin was negotiating on behalf of the Alliance of Small Island States to help deliver the UN’s Kyoto Protocol rulebook, known as the Marrakech Accord. Her work was focused on the environmental integrity of carbon markets, establishing the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). “All of that took about a decade, but I am not particularly proud of that work, since the carbon markets have failed to deliver.”
She went on to become director of the project that created the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), and drafted the very first directive for the European Commission. “But industry scuppered the ETS by insisting that governments give them too many free allowances, rendering the market worthless,” she explains. “It’s the same story with the CDM: industries and countries colluded, resulting in too many permits being issued and low-quality carbon credits. It’s not surprising people have turned against these mechanisms as they smack of greenwashing.”
Fast forward to last year’s COP25 climate summit in Madrid, and this is an all-too familiar story. Nations failed to agree carbon market rules under Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, with the US, China, India, Japan and Saudi Arabia reportedly blocking progress. Countries were accused of wanting to double-count emission reductions, undermining the system. “It is a free-for-all, with no stringency,” Yamin says. “Countries fail to accept that current regulations are not working.”
She was present at the COP25 talks, and says that little has changed since the early days of her career. “We are still having these same basic disputes around reducing emissions at source versus offsetting abroad. For quite different reasons, countries such as Japan, Korea, China, Brazil and Saudi Arabia are conspiring to have their cake and eat it with poor carbon markets, and there is a very entrenched and deliberate attempt now to unravel Paris.”
“Fossil fuel companies had taken a very deliberate and coordinated effort to obfuscate and confuse the science for decades”
Yamin describes the outcome of her endeavours as a “big disappointment”, and says that vested interests are to blame. It was the constant undermining of her work by various countries and corporates that finally led her to activism.
“I knew that the fossil fuel companies understood the reality of climate change, but had taken a very deliberate and coordinated effort to obfuscate and confuse the science for decades, just as the tobacco industry had done,” she explains. “At the same time, an incremental approach to policymaking was failing to recognise the urgency of the situation, and I felt someone needed to say that.”
Yamin is a trustee of Greenpeace UK and founder of Track 0, but has also worked with various other NGOs and saw that they had collectively failed to galvanise an adequate response to climate change and biodiversity loss.
XR came along at a time when Greta Thunberg was just starting to make headlines with her school climate strikes in 2018. These were among the first movements in developed countries to really bring public attention to the scale of the climate crisis, and were instrumental in the UK government declaring a climate and environmental emergency.
Yamin was one of six others to draft XR’s political strategy for the first half of 2019, coordinating the processes, writing briefings and taking part in numerous political meetings. “Without XR and the school strikes, we would still be bungling along thinking we can fix things incrementally without recognising that we are now in a worldwide emergency,” Yamin says. “We have alerted the public and put climate change right at the centre of political attention.”
Late 2018 saw XR activists blockade five bridges over the Thames before taking part in 10 days of protests in April last year. Protestors chained themselves to vehicles, blocked roads and glued themselves to buildings, causing widespread disruption across London. Yamin was one of thousands arrested, which she admits was nerve-racking. “I had actually tried getting arrested a couple of times before but failed! It can be harder than you think. My first attempt involved lying down outside Downing Street but the police basically ignored us for hours and we moved on.”
She decided to target the oil companies, who she says have been in the know and “totally complicit in ecocide” for decades, supergluing herself to oil giant Shell’s headquarters in central London before spending the evening in a jail cell. “I wanted to honour lawyer and campaigner Polly Higgins, who was dying of cancer and only had days to live,” she says. “I feel very pleased to draw attention to Shell’s part in environmental destruction. I was taken away in handcuffs from Shell’s headquarters, but they have not faced up to charges of ecocide all the while the world is burning.”
Yamin follows in the footsteps of many lawyers who have turned to activism and peaceful, non-violent civil disobedience in the pursuit of greater goals, including Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. “I draw comfort and inspiration from the lawyers before me who understood that when the law is oppressive and political systems fail, you have to break the law,” she explains. “Lawyers have a special responsibility, whether they are a judge, in-house counsel or litigator. I don’t go around breaking the law all the time, but I am willing to go to prison to highlight climate injustice. I feel I have a duty to stand up in solidarity with frontline communities and indigenous peoples who are fighting injustice every day and facing real threats to their lives, with many being killed for defending nature.”
“Breaking the law is a really important and established tool for when laws are unjust and the political system is unresponsive”
The reaction from her lawyer colleagues, she says, has been “generally very positive”, which came as a “good surprise”. More than 1,500 scientists have supported the XR protests, and Thunberg has also given the group her endorsement. However, many have been critical of XR’s tactics. It has been labelled “alarmist” by some sections of the media, and many thousands were affected by last year’s disruption. It was also criticised for threatening to use drones to ground planes at Heathrow Airport, while protests at Canning Town underground station were slammed for preventing commuters from using a relatively clean mode of transport.
“XR has rubbed some people up the wrong way, and at times we have not been as tactical or strategic as we probably should have been,” Yamin says. “Some of our actions were not smart, such as what happened at Heathrow, and I have definitely felt some frustration because of that.”
Frustration about strategy and the lack of accountability of some of XR’s co-founders has led Yamin to reevaluate her role at XR. She has taken a step back, and was not part of the planning for the October Rebellion. “The disputes and tensions left me quite bruised and upset,” she says. “As a lawyer, I didn’t volunteer to become fodder for a nonsensical strategy. Listening to diverse communities and learning lessons is what this year is about.”
Another criticism levelled at XR is that some of its demands, such as ‘tell the truth’, are too vague. It is due to publish a new ‘People’s Demand’, voted on by XR members, and Yamin believes decentralisation and strengthening accountability is crucial. “The hard graft of building a global movement is still at the early stages, XR has made a great start but I am not sure we yet have all the tools to do that. Having been part of the environmental community since 1992, I know it takes a long time to build the DNA of a new movement that is flexible and at the same time links social justice and climate justice as they are two sides of the same coin.”
There are now numerous strands to XR, trying to do just that and create a genuine ‘movement of movements’. Yamin devotes much of her time to this in Camden where she lives, because “choices and solutions must come from resilient communities”. She has recently helped Camden Council launch the Camden Climate ‘Think and Do’ Pop-Up, a six-week prototype involving more than a dozen local community groups. This saw a disused shop being converted into an eco-space, giving local people a platform to be involved in co-creating climate solutions. The council has extended the pop-up for another four months, and plans are afoot to create more in the borough and beyond.
“I think a lot of the work that XR does locally, which isn’t reported as much, is perhaps healthier – creating a vibrant, regenerative culture that engenders radical behaviour change and new community bonds,” she explains. “Decentralisation has benefits, with all the strands having different strategies so they are based in real communities.”
Rebel for life
Yamin has put her career on the line with her role in XR, and admits she may have burned bridges. “I might not be able to work with certain clients again, but I am cool with that,” she says. “Some people have looked at me with raised eyebrows, asking how I can associate myself with a group like that.”
She describes her move to XR as part of “relearning the history of fundamental social change”, and says that this always comes “from the bottom up”, whether it be the suffragettes, civil rights, anti-apartheid, gay rights or trade union movements. She sees a “direct parallel” between the fundamental injustice of those movements and climate change, but warns that one lesson from these movements is that real change can take decades, if not centuries. “I realised I had overly focused on my professional background, forgetting that the change I was seeking was part of a restucturing to the socioeconomic and financial system,” she says. “I had stopped saying things like ‘the system is broken’ because it sounds too political, but us professionals need to do more than write nice recommendations in reports talking about solutions such as carbon markets.”
Although she has been critical of some actions done in the name of XR, she is convinced that more disruption is needed, and is deciding what direct non-violent action to take next. Her role as an environmental lawyer and activist highlights the part that all stakeholders will play in tackling the climate crisis. “It can’t be one without the other,” she says. “We can’t have direct action and protests without proper policy frameworks that can transform society.”
This year will see more direct action across the UK and beyond, and the protestors will not back down until they see real change. “Breaking the law is a really important and established tool for when laws are unjust and the political system is so unresponsive,” Yamin says. “We still have time to avoid the worst of the injustices, and I am optimistic that we will fundamentally move away from fossil fuels and the destruction of nature in the next few years. The message that social justice and climate justice go hand in hand is spreading throughout the world, and XR has played a big part in galvanising us all to act.”
Protest and professionalism
1986: Graduates from Oxford University with a master’s degree in politics, philosophy and economics
1992: Becomes director at the Foundation for International Environmental Law and Development, works as a lawyer for vulnerable island states for 30 years
1993: Graduates from King’s College London with Master of Laws (LL.M)
2003: Becomes Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies
2012: Joins European Commission as special advisor to Connie Hedegaard
2013: Becomes visiting professor at University College London and associate research fellow at Chatham House
2014: Founds the Track 0 not-for-profit initiative to get a net-zero by 2050 goal into the Paris Agreement
2018: Joins Extinction Rebellion
Chris Seekings is a reporter for TRANSFORM