In October 2018, three years ago now, the International Panel on Climate Change released a special report on what could happen if the earth warms by more than 1.5℃. Put simply, the consequences involve flooding, drought and the risk of poverty for hundreds of millions of people. The report warned that we had only 12 years to prevent these effects. For many, including Dr. Jason Scott-Warren, Cambridge University English literature professor, this report was a wake-up call.

Scott-Warren, a lecturer and research fellow at Gonville & Caius college, says the report “punctured a state of illusion I was in that things were basically OK and must be, in some sense, under control.” This is not to say that he had never engaged with the problem of climate change before. He had been watching the issue ‘with alarm’ for some time, and reveals that when preparing for a recent court case, after his arrest at an Extinction Rebellion protest in London, he discovered that he had been donating to Friends of the Earth since as early as 1994.

So what happened in the 26 years between that initial donation and his visit to the City of London Magistrates Court in 2020? A pivotal moment for Scott-Warren was the formation of the Extinction Rebellion movement (popularly referred to as ‘XR’): “The formation of XR in 2018 kind of coincided with [the IPCC report] and was pretty crucial to me, because, although I had been involved in strike action, I had seen student occupations going on and been supportive, and I’d gone on marches and demos, I hadn’t ever really done anything that could count as civil disobedience before.”

“It creates a demand for action that moderate people can rise to”

And what was the appeal of civil disobedience? “I think the idea that you might cross a line, and that the social contract is broken and therefore to some extent the standard operation of the law is suspended. That kind of logic suddenly made a lot of sense to me, you know, that something extreme needs to happen in order for change to take place.” XR’s demand – that the UK government reaches net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 – is, according to Scott-Warren “not extreme if you think there’s a planet to save, but extreme in the sense that it’s not on anyone’s political agenda”.

Scott-Warren’s view on the negative perceptions of XR’s ‘extreme’ activities is that “by demanding something which feels extreme in the given political climate, XR opens up a space within which other people can do things that seem to them more pragmatic but which are pushing further and further towards the demands that we’re making”.

“By being willing to put yourself in that position of the extremist, everyone else gets to be not the extremist, but they’re kind of pressured to do something, so it creates a demand for action that moderate people can rise to.”

“I’m just going to keep pushing for change and keep hoping that it will come”

Following his involvement in XR’s ‘April Rebellion’ in London in 2019, Scott-Warren was arrested and found guilty of several public order offences, because the protest action was deemed unreasonable. He tells me that “The judge said that you could influence the situation through the ballot box’, but argues that ’the situation we’re in proves that democracy is not working as a solution to this problem.” “All other more moderate means have basically failed. That word failure disguises lots of smaller successes, there have been lots of victories along the way, but none of them have been sufficient.” Sufficient, he means, to stop us reaching that 1.5℃ of global warming which this year’s IPCC report warns is dangerously close.

In 2020, Scott-Warren took part in XR’s ‘Rebellion of One’ in which individuals blocked roads wearing emotive sandwich boards. Scott-Warren’s read: ‘I’m terrified for my children and my students because of the climate crisis’. No stranger to solo protests, Scott-Warren also spent months protesting at his local petrol station in 2019. Asked about the rationale behind this technique, he says “obviously it’s dramatically powerful to suggest that one person can stand up against the juggernaut, or throw themselves on the gears or whatever it might be, and that’s something about the relationship between drama and agency, how do you start to create responses that might make people shift in their views?” XR’s ‘Rebellion of One’ project harnessed this drama as a group. “It was one person sitting in the road, but there was a kind of support structure there as well.”

This is one of the advantages of collective action, he says. “I think XR has turned into this quite amazing organisational structure, with lots of support roles and lots of knowledge, knowledge from past actions feeding into future actions in a very disciplined way”. Despite his belief that collective action can be incredibly rewarding, participating in it has not always come naturally. “As an academic, taking part in collective action of any kind is always quite strange because I think academic life is quite individualistic, so the idea of subsuming yourself into any kind of collective will is actually counterintuitive and sometimes feels quite painful.”

Continuing to discuss the “uneasy” relationship between academic and activist, Scott-Warren emphasises that he engages in activism “more as a private individual, than as an academic.” Comparing himself - an English literature professor - to climate scientists, he says “I haven’t got a very strong connection between my academic self, the kind of research I do, and my activist self.” Moreover, he doesn’t want any controversy surrounding his academic status to overshadow the intentions of the action, and has avoided prominent involvement in some “more outlandish” actions to discourage media coverage focusing on his position at the university rather than on XR’s message.


Mountain View

‘It’s a privilege to be at the helm of an institution so important’: An exclusive interview with Vice-Chancellor Stephen Toope

As for the university itself, he expressed his admiration for the Cambridge Zero Carbon campaign and the achievement of pushing Cambridge University to pledge to divest from fossil fuels, but notes that there’s still more to be done: “I now think there are new challenges in terms of the timetable, speeding up the timetable for decarbonisation would be a really good thing.”

Clearly, however, Scott-Warren and Extinction Rebellion are acutely aware that heeding the warnings from the IPCC will involve changes far beyond one university. With 9 years left to act on that 12 year warning, Scott-Warren says “I’m just going to keep pushing for change and keep hoping that it will come.”