Climate justice and social justice are two sides of the same coin

For #TEDxLondonWomen, we spoke to leading international environmental lawyer and Extinction Rebellion activist Farhana Yamin, who has spent her career advising leaders and countries about #ShowingUp for our planet.

As a leading international environmental lawyer, you’ve spent your career advising leaders and countries. Have you always had an activist side? 

I was an activist as a teenager. I joined the Rock Against Racism movement, went to Greenham common peace protests and was a feminist and active in student politics at university. But after that I focused on my professional career as an environmental lawyer and saw it as the main way I contributed to change, joining various climate marches and anti-war protests. The arms trade and fossil fuel industry are linked. Environmental destruction, the displacement of people and increased greenhouse gas emissions are inescapably part of modern warfare enabled by the arms trade – so as we face the increasing prospect of climate breakdown, the deals being done to sell arms and surveillance have prepared the ground for further wars for resources and increasingly militarised borders. 

You’ve chosen to donate half of your professional time for free to causes and movements like Extinction Rebellion. What inspired this decision?

I have built up my career, giving me financial, social and reputational capital. It’s time to give back. I also felt I wanted to be free to pursue whatever my heart was calling me to act upon. I wanted to use my fundraising expertise to help Extinction Rebellion raise funding for the April Rebellion. I saw so many great people quitting their jobs to work free and was inspired by those taking on the risk of being arrested and going to prison for participating in peaceful protests. 

When you glued yourself to the Shell building, you said that ‘breaking the law has become more important than making the law’. Where do you find the courage to take radical action?

I am inspired by communities and countries on the frontlines of climate devastation who every day are making the decision to fight for climate justice and have been resisting oppression and marginalisation for centuries. They face real and growing threats of violence. I am also inspired by the millions of indigenous people and local communities who are bearing the brunt of fires in the Amazon or are impacted by land grabs, and who are facing the new power plants and extractive industries operating illegally and disregarding human rights. Even in the UK it is generally the poorest communities who bear the brunt of the worst pollution, including people with asthma, young people and the elderly. I am also deeply inspired by young people taking action and choosing to miss school to protest, even when it can cost them their chance to do well in exams and their future careers. 

What do you think are the most important steps individuals can take against the climate emergency?

Join a movement, become an activist and get involved in politics! We cannot change global systems by just each one of us switching off the lights or getting rid of household plastic. Individual lifestyle changes are important, but they are not going to result in fundamental changes to our economic and financial systems – that requires politicians and regulators to take dramatic actions. I have made lifestyle changes myself by cutting down on flights and meat consumption, and not buying new clothes. But I don’t want to be guilt-tripped for not being able to live a zero-carbon life in a world that is saturated by carbon. I want industry and government to take the responsibility for making it easier for me to live a greener, cleaner, healthier life. 

Where would you like to see the climate movement go from here?

The climate movement needs to focus on social justice. Extinction Rebellion shutting down the tube at Canning Town showed arrogance and insensitivity to the realities faced by the people trying to get to work, with so many fighting to keep their jobs in the gig economy. We have just seen the UN climate meeting, COP 25, cancelled in Chile because millions of Chileans marched in the streets of Santiago protesting inequality and exclusion. The protestors were highlighting the high cost of their public transport and demanding that those who gain from the existing economy listen to those just making ends meet. We need more climate activists to understand that climate justice and social justice are two sides of the same coin. Inequality is caused by our social and economic systems being out of kilter with the needs of people and the planet. We need to bring together for “the movement of movements” so that those fighting for social and ecological justice see the links. 

What does showing up mean to you?

It means not putting my identify as a migrant, a mother, a lawyer and a concerned citizen into separate boxes and silos, but tapping into all those identities and standing up for justice.