Extinction Rebellion and the Future of Climate Change: how helpful is the movement at creating long-lasting preventative change?

Success is subjective and often put numerically, but with a movement and protest group like XR how can their success be measured? Since launching in the UK at the end of October in 2018 they have had an aim to make ‘decision makers take notice’ and ‘increase the conversation about the depth of Climate change’. Extinction Rebellion’s main tool is protest. As of Thursday 2nd September, 483 people were arrested over the protests, according to The Guardian. During that week Police officers battled with protestors for control of an open top bus blocking London Bridge. Police are reported to have wrestled with protestors in a new desperate attempt to reduce the disruption. In the same week, there were also numerous protests from those against vaccination. A growing number of people disagree with the group due to the huge disruption that the protests cause, with one taxi driver commenting on the irony of the further damage to the planet the protesters were causing by allowing the cars to run at standstill. They (XR) weigh the impacts and disruption on people against the urgency and severity of climate change and biodiversity loss, arguing that if the climate crisis continues at its current rate, then the ‘disruption’ would be a whole lot greater. Their protestor numbers are dropping, however. In April 2019 there were 1,130 people detained and 1,768 that October. The numbers have consistently dropped since then, in part due to coronavirus restrictions. The decrease in arrests may be disheartening for a group that prides itself on civil disobedience to bring about change, in other words, the less noticeable to the government-funded police and the media they are, the less impact the protests will make. At the moment, the protests seem to be tiring society rather than causing momentous changes or any new waves of inspiration or influence. Indeed, one protest speaker pointed out that the most significant XR inspired change to policy currently making its way through parliament is legislation to severely curtail protest. 

As an activist group and charitable organisation, XR hold different values and a more unstructured system to most others claiming that ‘no one controls us or tells us what to do’ (extinctionrebellion.uk); they claim a ‘non-violence’ which does not extend to property, sometimes smashing windows and vandalising the Treasury in Westminster with fake blood, which only led to toxic paint in sewage systems and nearby land and an inconvenience to those who had to clear the mess up. Unlike the Suffragettes, XR have got a lot of media coverage and attention, yet policy change seems difficult for them to influence. 

How successful is XR? They certainly have had a huge following and support, attracting celebrities like Emma Thompson to further the influence of the cause. The movement has also, I think, brought the attention of a wide audience to the climate crisis, although not always in the most insightful way. In terms of having any influence to change on policy, that doesn’t always seem to be completely their intention; Extinction rebellion seeks to do what their name suggests: rebel against a crisis of survival in a way that rallies others to do the same. 

An interview with Extinction Rebellion protestor, Alex Smith:

What is Extinction Rebellion about?

Extinction Rebellion is a movement of scientists, doctors, lawyers, and members of the general public who aim to raise awareness towards the climate crisis and encourage the government to take the climate emergency seriously. The science is clear, climate change is happening and is the singular biggest threat to the existence of the human race. Human activity throughout the Anthropocene has greatly accelerated the process of global warming. XR believes that it is our duty to take responsibility for the damage we have created through the burning of fossil fuels and try to reverse it, or we face grave consequences for the future of our planet and our species. 

How did you hear about it? How did you get involved with the protest?

  I was first inspired to get involved in the climate change debate after seeing the work of Professor Ed Hawkins, climate scientist at Reading University and creator of the #ShowYourStripes campaign, a simple graphic depicting the increase of global temperatures since 1850. This led me to then look at the work of organisations such as Extinction Rebellion. Having been a strong supporter of the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill, myself and two mates decided to attend a few of their protests to encourage the UK government to bring the bill into legislation.

What was it like to protest? Were many people there prepared to be arrested?

It felt great to be part of one collective movement for a force of good. Shutting down the roads around Parliament Square isn’t something you get to be a part of every day. Some people would go out of their way to be arrested and the organisers were handing out cards to help you in the event of arrest, however it was totally your choice if you wanted to put yourself out there as a target for arrest.  Although, as the Protest I was at was so large, very few arrests were made. 

What does ‘raising awareness’ actually mean? Everybody has heard of climate change already, what do XR want in particular?

The main aim is to get Parliament to debate the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill, as well as get the media talking about it. They also aim to educate the public on the damage large corporations such as Shell have caused to the environment and populations such as the Ogoni people in which Shell were complicit in the murder of peaceful Ogoni protestors who were protesting the pollution of their land caused by Shell’s operations. With Ogoni speakers who witnessed Shell’s atrocities speaking at the London protests, the media attention from these protests could help bring Shell to justice. 

Do you support their current tactics in London, in principle or in practice?

I overall support XR’s aim to raise awareness towards climate issues through minimal. peaceful, organised disruption. Just look at how the actions of the Suffragettes led to women being allowed to vote. However, it’s important to get the general public on side and I think actions such as Canning Town Tube Station (which senior figures at XR admitted it was a mistake to target the Tube at rush hour) are not helpful at spreading the message to the general public. 

Do you think the state response to these protests is proportional?

Absolutely not, XR has consistently been clear with its peaceful non-violent message and has always aimed to constructively communicate with the government and MP’s only to be met with hostility and the labelled “organised criminals” by Home Secretary Priti Patel. With the recent Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, it seems the government is more focussed on shutting down peaceful groups such as XR than tackling climate change than bringing major organisations with a criminal history to justice. The amount of lies some media outlets like to peddle about the protests is disgusting, with one newspaper’s attempt to stain XR by unfoundedly claiming they blocked an ambulance. 

Do you think the group will be effective at enacting change in the long-term?

For XR to be effective in the long term we need a government that takes the Climate emergency seriously rather than a government that peddles false promises and is hell bent on cracking down on the democratic right to protest. It’s important to remember that some of the largest supporters of XR are climate scientists. As the science continues to show the truth of what’s happening to our planet and what needs to be done, the government can only ignore the science for so long. 

Image credits: Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash