Paralympian James Brown’s simple message to Boris Johnson: act now on the climate

Brown tells Donnachadh McCarthy why Johnson must stop dismissing climate activists as ‘crusties’ or an ‘eco-mob’

Wednesday 05 January 2022 15:25
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<p>James staged a spectacular climb on top of the fuselage of a British Airways jet at London City Airport in October 2019 </p>

James staged a spectacular climb on top of the fuselage of a British Airways jet at London City Airport in October 2019

A dual gold medal Paralympian has issued a new year climate challenge to Boris Johnson: make Britain proud and be the first country in the world to promise from this year onwards, no more expansion of roads, airports or consumption and to ban all destructive new fossil fuel investments.

In an exclusive interview with The Independent’s Climate Column, James Brown, whose barrister said he was one of the first peaceful UK climate protesters to be jailed since the 1920s, said we need the media and government to call on the public to slow consumption.

Brown was born 95 per cent blind. But this did not stop him gaining a mathematics degree at Warwick University, becoming a cross country skier and winning cycling and athletics gold and bronze medals at two Paralympics. He then co-founded the social enterprise Mobiloo, which hires out fully equipped mobile bathrooms to enable severely disabled people to attend events such as football matches, concerts and even circuses.

Overcoming his blindness, he says, has given him the motivational drive to tackle challenges that have yet to be achieved. And it is this drive which led him to become a peaceful climate protector for Extinction Rebellion (XR) over the last three years. A drive which led him to being in jail for six weeks leading up to Christmas.

It all started four years ago, when he met up with his daughter Alice on the day he was due to give a talk in Exeter. When discussing what he might speak about, Alice shared for the first time her grief and despair about the climate crisis and wildlife destruction. James had previously paid little attention to these crises, but the depth of his daughter’s grief opened him up to the urgency of the threat now facing our civilisation.

After beginning to research the issues, he quickly realised that 30 years of “normal” politics (petitions, lobbying and marches) had failed to even slow down the rise in carbon emissions or the bulldozing of nature. And like many past human rights movements, the crisis now needed peaceful mass direct action, to shift the public, media and governments out of their disastrous lethargy. And so, James got involved with the Extinction Rebellion, whch led to him being arrested a staggering 14 times for peaceful direct actions.

James’s motivation and drive led him to consider what the most impactful action he could personally take in service of the planet would be. The answer was to stage the spectacular climb on top of the fuselage of a British Airways jet at London City Airport in October 2019. I will never forget witnessing his broadcast live on Facebook, as he admitted to being terrified while on top of the plane. The images hit the headlines around the world and catapulted climate into the public’s consciousness again.

James was found guilty of causing a public nuisance at a subsequent jury trial, and was finally released on bail just weeks before Christmas by the Court of Appeal, while he awaited their decision. James’s account of his time spent in jail reveals the barbaric consequences of savage cuts to the prison service over the last decade of Tory austerity.

Prisoners are now locked up in their cells for almost 24 hours a day, every day, with often only an hour’s brief “yard exercise” every four to five days. Dinner consists of a five-minute walk to the canteen to collect it once a day. Plastic wrapped portions for breakfast and an evening “meal” are delivered directly to the cell.

James recounted the cruelty inflicted on him due to his blindness in prison. He was refused help when walking with his white stick to the showers or canteen, and was not protected from closing doors he could not see. Most cruel of all was a six-week refusal to allow him access to his special glasses that had been sent in by his wife. These glasses, combined with large print text, enable James to read despite his 5 per cent vision. In a reversal of one’s expectations, he said it was the prisoners who actually went out of their way to assist him.

He said imprisonment had been made bearable by the thousands of messages of solidarity he received from supporters. He claims he is no hero but he wants to inspire others to take action. “We need more collaboration and we need to show by example to inspire the people of this country and the global community. And this does not mean living in caves.”

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James is demanding that we all – governments, the media and the general public included – up our conversations and expectations regarding the climate and ecological emergencies as we face 2022, one of the last years in which radical action can help avert utter civilisational collapse.

Boris Johnson needs to stop dismissing climate protectors like James and the teachers, doctors, carpenters, clergy, pensioners and more who have been arrested as “crusties” or an “eco-mob”. They are decent people seeking to get him to do the decent thing: act now to stop all new UK fossil fuel investments in 2022 and phase out existing fossil fuel usage by 2030.

James has shown us how to overcome adversity. He has made the seemingly impossible become doable. The rest of us should follow his example.

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