Why I'm going to my first protest since university

Late editor Amber Allott has had her own brush with a drowning world

Back in New Zealand, my own home town is becoming a victim of climate change (Photos: Amber Allott)Back in New Zealand, my own home town is becoming a victim of climate change (Photos: Amber Allott)
Back in New Zealand, my own home town is becoming a victim of climate change (Photos: Amber Allott)

Wandering the streets of Bath during an Easter long weekend city trip, a small group of protesters outside a local bank managed to catch my eye.

Activists held up photos from Gideon Mendel’s Drowning World series to the steady beat of a drum. Solemn, striking portraits of people from places as far apart as South Carolina, Brazil, and India, submerged in floodwaters in places they once felt safe.

I’ve had my own brush with a drowning world. In July 2021, while working for a newspaper in Christchurch, New Zealand, I journeyed back to my hometown - a little mining town on the South Island’s West Coast called Westport - after the national forecaster issued an extremely rare ‘red’ weather warning for the town.

What followed was flooding of catastrophic proportions. I waded through flooded yards and hallways, waist-deep in sewage-contaminated water, with locals kind enough to let me into their homes. Many had lost everything, even those who had tried to prepare for the storm. One couple had a baby due in two weeks time, and all of the things they had bought in preparation for their son’s arrival had been destroyed.

Thousands of people were evacuated during the flood, many taking shelter at local schools, sleeping in classrooms and libraries with their neighbours. Some would never go home, with at least 70 houses eventually red-stickered. People were devastated, and I was too. These were, after all, my own friends and neighbours. The ravaged houses I had walked through belonged to the parents and cousins of people I had grown up with, and to teachers who had taught me in high school.

Westport sits between two rivers and the sea, and has always been prone to flooding. But experts say climate change is already making these floods bigger and more frequent. Since July 2021, Westport has already lost more homes to what seems like an ever-rising tide.

The activists in Bath were from Extinction Rebellion, and were advertising a protest called ‘The Big One’, taking place in London this coming weekend. Tens of thousands of people are expected to take part in peaceful demonstrations outside the Houses of Parliament, demanding the government sets up a Citizens’ Assembly on Climate and Ecological Justice, made up of a representative cross-section of UK society. Members would be given expert knowledge on issues around a transition away from fossil fuels, and then be supported to work together and come up with a plan.

I’ve attended dozens of protests over the years in my role as a journalist. Protests I agreed with, and ones that I didn’t. Protests that inspired me, protests that frightened me, and even a few that brought me to tears - for one reason or another.

Very rarely have I felt it was my responsibility to join them, especially outside of a work capacity. But as a major United Nations report released last month said, we’re running out of time to cut greenhouse gas emissions enough to keep the average global temperature less than 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. This is the last call for climate change, and every fraction of warming escalates the severity of heatwaves, heavy rainfall and flooding.

Westport may one day become entirely unliveable, but I don’t want that to happen to your home.