Case study Extinction Rebellion

Extinction Rebellion is an international social movement that uses non-violent direct action to pressure governments to act on the “Climate and Ecological Emergency”. XR is a more decentralised and open network that allows anyone who shares its principles and values to create their own local group, and autonomously decide how best to further its aims in their local community. XR’s leaders have argued that traditional campaigning methods have proven ineffective at pressuring governments to address climate change. As a result, the movement uses civil disobedience – non violently breaking laws in the hope that mass arrests draw attention, and overwhelms the government. The movement’s first action came on 31st August 2018, when a group of activists blocked a road on Trafalgar Square. Then, on 31st October, over 1,000 people gathered to occupy a road in front of Parliament, as the movement made its ‘Declaration of Rebellion’, in which it announced a rebellion “against our Government and the corrupted, inept institutions that threaten our future.” On 17th November, XR shut down five London bridges by gathering large numbers of protesters, leading to 85 arrests. On 24th November, protesters held a mock funeral for the planet and dug up turf in Parliament Square. In 2019, XR’s protests greatly increased in scale. On 9th March, around 400 protesters gathered to throw 200 litres of red paint on the pavement outside Downing Street. On 1st April, semi-naked activists glued themselves to the window of the public gallery in the House of Commons during a Brexit debate, leading to 12 arrests. On 15th April, the movement launched an 11-day demonstration that shut down some of London’s busiest streets and landmarks. It was reported that tens of thousands took part in the protest, with some gluing themselves to trains and the London Stock Exchange. It has been estimated that the protest delayed over 500,000 commuters, and cost the Metropolitan Police around £16 million. XR held a two-week demonstration in October 2019, which led to 1,828 arrests. Around 30,000 protestors took part in blockades that led to street closures in parts of Westminster and Whitehall and caused disruption to flights and trains in the city. On 14th October, the police controversially banned all XR protests for the whole of London under section 14 of the Public Order Act (1986), which allows limits on public procession or assembly if police reasonably believe that there is a risk of serious public disorder, damage to property, disruption to the life of the community, or intimidation of others

How successful has XR been?

In terms of XR’s three core demands, the movement has had mixed success:

1) “Tell the truth - Government must tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency, working with other institutions to communicate the urgency for change.” On 1st May 2019, shortly after XR’s April actions in London, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn used an Opposition Day Debate in the House of Commons to ask MPs to declare a national environment and climate emergency. The motion was approved without a vote, and, while the Environment Secretary Michael Gove did not endorse a plan for the Government to officially declare a crisis, he did tell the Commons that “the Government recognise the situation we face is an emergency. It is a crisis, and it is a threat that we must all unite to meet.” This motion came just days after Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon declared a "climate emergency" in her speech to the SNP conference on the 28th April, and a similar declaration by the Welsh Government on the 29th. Polling conducted by YouGov found that since XR’s actions, climate change has become a much higher priority for voters. Ahead of the 2017 General Election only 8% said the environment was one of the top three issues facing the country, but, in 2019, it was 26%, with 45% of 18-24 year-olds citing it as their second-biggest concern after Brexit.

2) “Act Now - Government must act now to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025.” On 12th June 19, during her final speech as Prime Minister, Theresa May announced a plan to reduce the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, arguing that there was a "moral duty to leave this world in a better condition than what we inherited". On 24th June, the Commons voted to amend section 1 of the Climate Change Act 2008, replacing the existing target to reduce emissions by 80% by 2050, to May’s net zero target. Emissions from homes, transport, industry etc will either be eliminated entirely, or offset by actions that remove greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere, e.g. by planting new forests. While this 2050 target falls far short of XR’s demand of net zero emissions by 2025, it is notable that the UK became the first major economy in the world to enshrine a net zero target in legislation less than a year after XR’s actions began. It is also notable that opposition parties went further in their net zero pledges ahead of the 2019 General Election. The Green Party came closest to XR’s demand, with a 2030 target, while Labour’s 2019 manifesto targeted a “substantial majority of our emissions reductions by 2030”, and the Liberal Democrats aimed to reach net zero by 2045.

3) “Beyond Politics - Government must create and be led by the decisions of a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice.” On 18th June 2019, Gail Bradbrook, one of the founders of XR, gave oral evidence to the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee. During the session, which focussed on the Government’s net zero carbon target, Bradbrook repeatedly argued that a citizens’ assembly was the best means to agree a path for achieving a more ambitious net zero target, because “current political processes are failing us. We have to do something entirely different here.” Bradbrook argued, “Through a citizens’ assembly, you will come up with a package that people can get behind because it will have ordinary people on it who have been taught critical thinking skills and given evidence.” Two days later, six Select Committees, including the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, announced plans to form a Citizens’ Assembly later in the year to explore how best to reach the 2050 net zero emissions target. In November 2019, 30,000 invitation letters were sent out across the country, and from January to March 2020, 100 members gathered over four weekends to hear balanced evidence on the options available, and make recommendations for how the UK should become net zero by 2050. While XR “welcomes this first step” it has criticised the fact that members will only be discussing a path towards a 2050 target date, and that their recommendations will only be advisory.

What factors explain XR’s successes and failures? Aims – Whether or not a pressure group succeeds will depend greatly on what exactly it is trying to achieve. A pressure group with focussed, realistic goals will likely find it easier than one that proposes radical, complex and unpopular reforms. A common criticism of the international Occupy Movement, which emerged in 2011 to protest growing inequality following the late 2000s financial crisis, was that the movement lacked clearly defined goals and policy prescriptions. XR has arguably avoided this with its three specific demands. While many of XR’s leaders believe that preventing climate change will require a revolution that sees the world abandon neoliberal capitalism, the movement has focussed on the more limited and achievable goal of getting the Government to acknowledge that there is a climate crisis, and to follow the recommendations of a citizens’ assembly. XR has made considerable progress on both demands, and it is unsurprising that it has so far struggled the most with its demand of a 2025 net zero target - easily its most ambitious aim. Organisation - Anyone can quickly become part of an emerging social movement, helping it to easily spread and grow, but their informal nature can have disadvantages. Unlike pressure groups, which are generally formal organisations, with clear leaders, specific aims, and often fee-paying members, social movements are large, loose networks of people and organisations that wish to make significant, broadly similar changes to society. The 2011 Occupy Movement did not want to elect leaders, and preferred decisions to be agreed by a public vote from demonstrators. As the movement included a huge range of diverse groups, this made agreeing on a plan of action very difficult, and challenging the influence of extremely well organised and funded banks and businesses even tougher. The leaders of XR have taken a different path. While there are rules, and teams that work to coordinate the movement, XR’s guidelines stress that individuals and small groups should take the initiative in deciding on what actions they can take to further the cause. However, decentralising power like this can also have costs. XR’s leaders were quick to distance themselves from a small group that drew a public backlash for staging a protest on the roofs of London tube trains during rush hour in October 2019. XR said that while the “overwhelming opposition and consternation from those in our movement, both regarding the nature, location, and timing of the action” caused some to abandon the action, others went ahead regardless. Political climate/ public opinion – While XR has played a significant role in pushing climate change up the political agenda, the movement is unlikely to be the only reason why voters in 2019 were far more likely to cite the environment as one of their main concerns. Some voters may have become more sympathetic to XR’s cause after witnessing the wildfires that raged across California and Australia in 2019, or perhaps by being personally affected by flooding in the UK. Others may have been influenced by the release of the fifth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report in 2018, which warned of the dangers of allowing temperatures to rise beyond 1.5 degrees, or by Sir David Attenborough’s 2019 documentary on climate change. Others may have seen the fact that even large multinationals have announced radical new environmental policies, with airlines pledging to offset their carbon emissions, and bankers pledging to switch their investments from fossil fuels to more sustainable industries. A 2019 Ipsos Mori poll found that 78% of Britons believe the planet is “heading for disaster”, up from 59% in 2013. This has certainly given the movement an advantage lacked by the activists who gathered at annual ‘Climate Camps’ around the country from 2006-2011 to protest carbon emitters. Status – XR’s mixed success might also be explained by the fact that, while it primarily relies upon civil disobedience, like an outsider group, members have at times used the more formal and traditional methods of insider groups, meeting with politicians and providing oral evidence in Parliament. Politicians do not normally want to be associated with groups that actively encourage law breaking. However, perhaps as a result of XR’s commitment to non-violence, and the growing public concern over climate change, members have at times been able to cross over, if not to work directly with the Government, but with opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn to secure a climate emergency declaration, and with House of Commons Select Committees to establish a citizens’ assembly on climate change

Membership and tactics.

XR has managed to not only grow rapidly, but to attract extremely dedicated members, who are willing to not only volunteer and plan actions, but be arrested for their civil disobedience. The movement’s growth has been crucial to its success. XR would not have been able to overwhelm police resources in London, and attract as much attention as it has, unless so many volunteers had joined the movement. Drawing on studies of past protest movements, XR believes that it will ultimately need to mobilise around 3.5% of the population in order to force through its demands. However, critics argue that XR may struggle to do so, because, like many social movements, it falls prey to what academics call ‘biographical availability’ – this refers to the fact there are many people who, whether because of their work, family responsibilities, health, and so on, are unable or unwilling to participate in collective action that carries such social, financial and legal costs. Methods – XR’s leaders have cited the suffragettes, Martin Luther King and the US Civil Rights movement, and Gandhi and the Indian independence movement amongst their inspirations. Leaders have also repeatedly cited research by Harvard’s Erica Chenoweth, who, in an influential study of past grassroots movements, concluded that non-violent campaigns were twice as effective as those that used violence to further their goals, and that movements that involved more than 3.5% of the population eventually succeed. Certainly, XR’s commitment to non-violence has made it easier for politicians to reach out to the movement, and even invite leaders to appear in Parliament. XR argues that its nonviolent actions place great pressure on the Government, because the disruption carries great economic costs and strains police resources. They believe that people will be more attracted to a non-violent movement, and that the sight of peaceful protesters being arrested not only demonstrates their commitment, and the seriousness of the cause, but attracts sympathy. It is certainly possible that some will have viewed the police’s decision in October 2019 to issue a blanket ban on all XR actions as heavy handed, and an infringement of speech rights. Some may have also responded negatively to reports in January 2020 that the police had placed XR on a list of extremist ideologies.

XR- middle class and out of touch?

However, critics argue that civil disobedience to challenge alienates many people in a liberal democracy since XR is not an oppressed minority group defending its rights, it is one of many cause groups trying to promote its. Critics argue that XR lacks diversity, attracting a largely white, middle class body of students and retirees, and that this is especially problematic as it has primarily carried out its civil disobedience in one of the most diverse cities in the world. Critics also argue that if XR’s actions are to enjoy popular support, it will need to improve its engagement with the communities its actions disrupt the most, otherwise the backlash that followed the London tube disruption may become more common. In October 2019, YouGov found that only 36% either ‘strongly’ or ‘somewhat’ supported the movement, while 54% were ‘strongly’ or ‘somewhat’ opposed. Critics argue that XR will struggle to reach its 3.5% target (2.3 million people) or achieve its goals through force alone. Opposition – Achieving XR’s 2025 net-zero demand would require reforms radical enough to provoke resistance from powerful vested interests that go far beyond carbon heavy industries. Rapidly reducing carbon emissions would also require reductions in living standards, and while many sympathise with XR, or at least fear climate change, this does not mean that they are equally ready for the substantial lifestyle changes that the movement believes are necessary. It remains to be seen how radical the recommendations of the citizens’ assembly on climate change will be, or how the rest of the public will respond to them. Critics argue that while people want something to be done about climate change, they are rightfully fearful that it will hurt their standard of living. This is not a selfish concern for the the majority of struggling families. Critics argu that WR are a reflection of middle class guilt.