‘Climate change means war’: Extinction Rebellion criticised over Cenotaph climate protest

‘It is my duty to act,’ says British armed forces veteran placing banner on Whitehall memorial

Andy Gregory
Wednesday 11 November 2020 17:45 GMT
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Extinction Rebellion protesters lay climate warning wreath at Cenotaph

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Extinction Rebellion protesters hung a wreath of poppies at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Day, also draping a banner in front of the memorial reading: “Honour their sacrifice, climate change means war.”

The wreath was laid by British army veteran Donald Bell, who undertook two minutes’ silence before placing the garland at the Whitehall memorial just after 8am.

In a statement, the activist group highlighted a Ministry of Defence-commissioned report, published in June, which warned of the “growing recognition that climate change may aggravate existing threats to international peace and security”.

However, the protest attracted criticism including from Labour Party leader Keir Starmer, who said: “No one can doubt how serious the climate emergency is but the protests at the Cenotaph are wrong, in bad taste and we do not support them”.

Mr Bell, a 64-year-old who completed four tours in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, said: “I took action today knowing that I would be criticised.

“I knew that I would be accused of being disrespectful and hated by many for speaking out in this way. Remembrance Day is never an easy time for veterans and this was not an easy decision for me to make.

“But I served this country, I served the people of this country and the action I took today is about just that. Unchecked climate change means a return to a world at war. I cannot stand by and let that happen. It is my duty to act.”

He accused the government’s climate advisers of having “a Dad’s Army approach to protecting British people from the impacts of climate change”, adding: “This government is criminally negligent and young people today will pay the price for their failure.

“However you feel about the action today, I want people to take this message – if we don’t deal with this climate emergency, now, it will lead to war.” 

It came as veterans and members of the public gathered on their doorsteps around the UK to commemorate the 102nd anniversary of the signing of the armistice which heralded the end of the First World War.

While restrictions in place to curb the coronavirus pandemic forbade the large gatherings typically seen on Remembrance Day, some socially distanced ceremonies were held, including one at the Cenotaph later on Wednesday, where the “Last Post” was played on a bugle recovered from the mud of the Somme battlefield in 1915.

Mr Bell’s expectations were realised as the word “disrespectful” began to trend on Twitter, with Boris Johnson’s spokesperson, Conservative Party co-chair Amanda Milling and presenter Piers Morgan among a number of – largely right-wing – public figures to denounce Extinction Rebellion’s action as such.

“The Cenotaph is a memorial to those who fought and died to preserve all our freedoms,” the prime minister’s official spokesperson told reporters. “On today of all days, when we join together to pay tribute to our war dead, this action is profoundly disrespectful.”

With the protest coming as Mr Johnson seeks to use climate action to build ties with US president-elect Joe Biden, Downing Street said the decision on whether to allow the protest to go ahead had been an operational matter for police.

The Royal British Legion, which supports veterans – notably via the poppy appeal – acknowledged sacrifices made by the armed forces for freedom of speech, but ultimately criticised the use of Remembrance Day for protest.

“War memorials and graves honour the memory of every member of the armed forces who has made the ultimate sacrifice and deserve to be treated with the utmost respect,” a spokesperson said.

“The armed forces community, past and present, have made sacrifices in defence of the freedoms we have today, including the freedom of speech.

“Whilst we respect the right of others to express their opinions within the law, we believe the poppy appeal is a time for Remembrance, and not for political protest.”

Additionally, Tory Party vice chair Andrew Bowie accused the activist group of doing “great damage to the debate on climate change”, adding: “They alienate sympathetic and moderate voices and do nothing to solve the issue they say they care about.”

The group’s unprecedented protests in April 2019, during which activists met with then-environment secretary Michael Gove and climate breakdown dominated the front pages, were followed two months later by the government pledging to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

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