My own father is deeply sceptical about Extinction Rebellion.
A scientist himself, he has no doubts about the need for radical action to tackle climate change and its increasingly inevitable impacts. His core concern, rather, is the movement’s apparent failure to provide a solution to the problem. While stating radical ambitions and demands for climate change policy – most notably of all calling upon the British government to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2025 – XR do not offer clear, practicable guidelines on how to achieve these goals.
In some ways, this is true. Though XR are committed to a clear set of demands – ‘tell the truth’; ‘act now’; establish a ‘citizens’ assembly’ – themselves based in evidence and research, there is no handy guidebook as to how such goals may be enacted. My father isn’t the only one to have taken issue with this fact: Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees made a similar accusation in his open letter following the July protest. ‘I have heard little yet in terms of specifics,’ he said. ‘If you have no agreed list of specific asks/demands, how do you know that what people are currently doing isn’t enough and isn’t being done fast enough? Secondly, if people say “OK, what do you want?” you have nothing to say’.
Rees goes on in his open letter to bash the very argument I am about to make in defence of Extinction Rebellion. And that is, quite simply, it’s not the role of a protest movement to be designing and enacting complex policy. No one can doubt the enthusiasm and personal commitment of XR’s members to the cause of climate action: the vast majority are vegetarian are vegan; walk or cycle across the city; devote their time and money to the environment.
But Extinction Rebellion have collectively realised that the problem is bigger than individual responsibility, and it’s going to take widespread, drastic policy change to overcome it. Should the teachers, doctors, plumbers, in XR really be responsible for designing that policy? Rather than overlooking an important part of their success, by not providing an ‘agreed list of specific asks/demands’ XR are simply saying: we know what needs to be done, but will leave it to the real experts and policy makers to decide how. In other words, XR are drawing attention to the grave issue, rather than purporting to know the ins and outs of how the solve it.
How realistic, then, are Extinction Rebellion’s aims, notwithstanding their plan (or lack thereof) for how to achieve them? Of course, individuals like Marvin Rees would claim that the movement’s lack of clarity on achieving their own demands is a direct impediment. But Rees has underestimated the quantity of research that has gone in to forming the backbone of Extinction Rebellion.
Research by political scientists Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth helped form the basis of Extinction Rebellion’s modus operandi. Through comprehensive research into historical protest movements, comparing violent and non-violent, Stephan and Chenoweth set out a method for achieving success as a political campaign. She found that non-violent campaigns are twice as likely to be successful as their violent equivalent. The movement’s founder, Roger Hallam, has said himself that this research was vital to XR’s foundations.
Carrying out non-violent civil disobedience is one thing. But Chenoweth has also concluded that a successful non-violent campaign requires 3.5% of the public to be in active support, as well as 50% in passive support. In Britain alone, this would total almost 2.5 million people actively supporting XR’s cause. And while the movement are indeed growing rapidly, gaining political and public attention in the process, there may be an inherent conflict between the support necessary for success and the tactics used to secure it. This dichotomy (discussed in part two of this series) should raise concerns for XR’s leadership.
Nevertheless, Chenoweth’s research was based on historically successful non-violent campaigns. That is to say, it’s been done. Extinction Rebellion, though, ought to be treading a careful line between alienating the public and bringing them on board. (Though sometimes people can surprise you: a recent meeting saw a new attendee opening with the line ‘I’m here because you pissed me off and made me want to find out more’.)
It can’t be denied that Extinction Rebellion has grown rapidly and loudly within months of their official foundation in October 2018 – a promising trend for those involved. Their timing too was perfect: not only because climate change is on our agendas as never before, but because the age of social media is the ideal environment for disseminating and spreading a campaign like XR’s. In this context, the simplicity of their demands is ideal; anyone with a Twitter account has observed that the platform doesn’t lend itself to complex, measured debate.
Perhaps the boldest of XR’s demands is their call for legally binding policy that reduces carbon emissions to net zero by 2025. In comparison to the government’s unenthusiastic promise of net zero emissions by 2050, XR have set an ambitious target. Even the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT), who themselves claim ‘that we already have all the technologies we need to achieve zero carbon emissions by 2050 – or even earlier’ concede that carbon neutrality by 2025 would take extreme and rapid change on an international scale. For example, totally cutting out fossil fuels for the UK alone would require a total area of wind farms twice the size of Wales.
Hence why ‘tell the truth’ and ‘act now’ go hand in hand: recognition of the severity of climate change and a declaration of climate emergency would underpin such drastic and ambitious measures.
Ambition, though, is necessary, and not just according to Extinction Rebellion. The UN and IPCC have warned of the disastrous consequences of global warming of more than 1.5°C above industrial levels, a prospect that necessitates unprecedented change. While XR’s methods may be unorthodox when compared to climate scientists’, they are based on solid research and historically successful campaigns. Once they’ve found their feet, XR could see past and future generations brought together on what they believe is the most important issue of our time.
‘Tell the truth’, XR ask. It seems the real big-hitters have already done so: Extinction Rebellion are simply using good, old-fashioned people power to get our governments to take notice.