Opinion: Extinction Rebellion: I’m not convinced by their methods but their core message of urgency is spot on


Extinction Rebellion protesters gathered in Marble Arch. Photo credit: Sarah Cresswell / Extinction Rebellion.

By Anders Lorenzen

For the last several weeks, the climate movement Extinction Rebellion (XR) has staged over a hundred non-violent direct actions across London seeking to disrupt the city as much as possible to draw attention to the climate crisis.

Their core message that action on climate change is immensely urgent and that governments, as well as businesses, have not done enough to address it, is of course totally correct. Anyone who follows the climate situation closely will agree that the urgency of the climate science reports is not matching political, corporate and personal action.

It is also evident that we need a massive increase in ambition to have just a tiny chance of avoiding what scientists are calling irreversible runaway climate change.

And finally, from a UK perspective we have become so completely preoccupied and paralysed by Brexit that all our political energy, and indeed most of taxpayers money, has been funnelled towards that in the last three years; three years in which we have invariably lessened our focus on tackling worsening global climate change. When XR protesters recently interrupted a parliament session on Brexit by glueing their semi-naked bodies to the glass in the public gallery this was a wake-up call. Whether a semi-naked protest was the best way to invite people to reflect on climate change is, of course, another question.

My personal concern about XR has always been about the efficacy of their methods and whether the resulting conversations would be meaningful and focus on climate change or instead focusing on dissecting XRs protest style.

At first, the XR actions did indeed spark a discussion about ‘naked protests’ and ‘hippies’ with media outlets and social media users having a laugh about that rather than taking the opportunity to reflect on climate change itself. This did however gradually change.

The objective of mass arrest too was a challenge for me, I did not feel it was the right approach and it challenged my perception of how non-violent direct actions are most effective.

I also felt uncomfortable about the ‘street party’ vibe of some of the activities. In my view, protesting climate change should be a sombre business, not something that runs the risk of looking like a festival.

I also believe targeting London’s public transport networks was a mistake; public transport is absolutely central to living a more low-carbon life and sent out confusing messages to an already confused public.

And finally, it became clear how white and middle-class XR appears, and several people made the point that there’s actually a certain amount of privilege associated with being able to even take two weeks off work to take part in a protest, which is a problem. The movement should, of course, be as diverse and inclusive as possible, after all, it is affecting poorer people and people of colour far more than anyone else.

However, having said all this, something appears to have worked. Political, media and public attention have finally started to genuinely turn towards climate change. The huge upswing of people I have seen starting to discuss climate change on social media is very welcome and the (knee-jerk) response from the UK government via a new public video outlining their achievements on climate change – which by the way has many flaws – is also welcome.

Furthermore, public support, which is critical for any movement to succeed, seems to be on the rise which is a welcome surprise. Some commentators have argued that this is the final push the climate movement needed to tip over the edge and finally go mainstream; only time will tell if this proves to be correct, it would be an enormously welcome development if that was the case.

It is incredibly exciting that climate change has been pushed to the top of the agenda but now we need to make it stay there. Once the two weeks of action has passed Thursday and with Parliament’s two weeks Easter break is over and business, as usual, continues, how do we make sure Brexit does not take up all the headline space again?

This needs to be a joint effort. Politicians, businesses and news editors and of course the public all have a duty to make sure it does not slip down the agenda and XR will unquestionably do all in their power to make sure the focus and momentum on tackling climate change will remain. There is a level of commitment, energy and determination in this movement I have not seen before and I wish them well even if I reserve the right to be sceptical of some of their methodology; I guess we’re all watching this space to see where this goes next.

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