A week after Extinction Rebellion vacated the streets of London, they are still in the headlines. Despite the sneering remarks of the climate deniers and cynics, Extinction Rebellion has achieved what many others have failed to do. They have gained the attention of the public and raised the profile of environmental breakdown.
On the face of it, Extinction Rebellion is not massively different to Greenpeace who has been advocating the same thing for decades, and yet anyone who witnessed what they were doing on the streets of London will also feel that something here is different to what we’ve seen before.
Extinction Rebellion has undoubtedly come about at the right time. We all now have a much better understanding of what is happening to the environment and world climate.
Even a few years ago climate breakdown was the territory of scientists, but now with the arrival of popular TV documentaries such as the BBC’s Blue Planet, the environmental crisis affecting the world has been laid bare to hundreds of millions of people.
Scientists are now clear that the window of opportunity to avoid climate breakdown is swiftly closing and are themselves shocked at how quickly global warming is accelerating. Just last year the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that global greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced by almost half over the next 11 years to keep warming below 1.5C. If warming rises above this figure, then we risk reaching a tipping point of runaway climate change where it will become impossible to reverse global warming.
Yet no government or business has a plan in place to reduce carbon emissions by this level. Only Extinction Rebellion has called for governments to bring carbon emissions down to zero by 2025.
What Are Their Demands?
Extinction Rebellion has three main demands, which appear extreme but are in line with warnings from scientists and the IPCC.
Firstly, they want the government to tell the truth about the environmental crisis the world is facing and declare a climate emergency. Secondly, they demand that the UK implement legally binding policies to reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2025 and thirdly that the government form a citizens’ assembly to oversee these changes to the law.
Many commentators on the right argue that Extinction Rebellion is made up of white privileged rich kids and is middle class and self-indulgent. Boris Johnson called the protestors “smug, irritating and disruptive”, while the Home Secretary Sajid Javid said the police should “take a firm stance and use the full force of the law” against them.
This may be true to an extent but misses the essential point that climate change doesn’t recognise class or race. In fact, environmental breakdown will hit the poorest hardest, as they will be most vulnerable to its effects.
And although their methods are extreme and their demands unrealistic, the government has been forced to listen to them.
The Protestors and The Politicians
On Tuesday Extinction Rebellion’s youth representative, 14-year old Felix O’Mahony, met the environment secretary Michael Gove for talks. While the group said the meeting was “very disappointing”, the mere fact that he met them is encouraging.
Gove conceded that the state of carbon emissions was “grave” and that he was “open to a higher level of ambition [to reduce emissions] from this government than we have seen in the past.”
Extinction Rebellion also met John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, who agreed to engage with their demands.
And while those in power dither, there is a chorus of famous voices siding with the protestors. The actress Dame Emma Thompson flew over from her home in Los Angeles, which has been at the forefront of devastating wildfires as a result of climate change, to support the protest in London.
A new cross-party group of politicians, the Committee on Climate Change, which includes the former Labour leader Ed Miliband and the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas, has called on the government to end so-called “climate appeasement” and put the country “on a war footing” to avert climate disaster, in reference to The Second World War where everything else was put on hold to defeat the Nazis. “Politics needs to be on a war footing to deal with this enemy but too often it sends the message that business as usual will do,” said Miliband.
A Publicity Stunt to Increase Awareness
What Extinction Rebellion have managed where everyone else has failed is to make more people take notice of climate change.
Although many of the ranks of Extinction Rebellion are seasoned campaigners, they have also seen a surge in people joining them who have never protested seriously before.Since the protests began on the 15th April 30,000 people have become members of the group, which has raised 300,000 in crowdfunding to support what it is doing.
Over the past two weeks Extinction Rebellion has had a huge amount of media coverage, some of it negative, but mostly sympathetic to their cause. PR experts are also in agreement that the type of disruptive tactics they use have successfully made people take notice of them. They have used simple but strong messages, such as stopping traffic and the pink boat marooned on Oxford Circus, and unlike many publicity stunts Extinction Rebellion will not be going away and the momentum will be sustained.
“Publicity stunts are a tipping point to achieve consciousness. What the PR world does badly sometimes are bad publicity stunts that go off and generate a focus of attention for 24 hours but is then forgotten about. What they have done through the use of direct action and social media is build momentum behind their campaign,” Mark Borkowski, who has written extensively about the art of the publicity stunt, told the Independent.
The fact that all the protests have been non-violent has also worked in Extinction Rebellion’s favour. Although over 1,100 protestors were arrested, they were all non-violent arrests.
“We are non-violent and even Cressida Dick, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, has commented on how peaceful we’ve been. We’ve had over 1,000 peaceful arrests and there’s been no trouble or aggression with regards to that,” Allana Byrne, a press coordinator for the group, told UK media.
Data collected from Google Trends also shows that the group has dramatically succeeded in raising public awareness about climate change. The analytical tool assigns terms a popularity score out of 100 over a specific period. In the week leading up to the protests, the words “climate change” were assigned a relative score of just 13, whereas in the first week of protests the search “climate change” rose to 68.
Change is Already in the Air
Despite the messages of doom and gloom from Extinction Rebellion and the IPCC, the green movement is surging. Just like the civil rights campaigns of the 1960s and the LGBT movements of the 1980s, the green campaign, from its low-key awakenings in the 1970s, is now a serious global phenomenon.
Despite the efforts of climate change deniers like US President Donald Trump, substantial progress has been made. The UK now produces around 20% of its electricity by wind power, electric cars are likely to replace the internal combustion engine by mid-century and China, despite its carbon emissions, is leading the world in the production of solar panels and batteries.