The message that humanity was running out of time to avert a planetary-scale climate catastrophe caught fire. XR groups rapidly multiplied into a leaderless global network with shared principles but distinct, local demands.
In September 2019, various climate organisations banded together for days of protests and brought between six and eight million people into the streets across 150 countries. One early XR victory was forcing the British government to declare “an environment and climate emergency”, making the UK the first country to do so.
“That was a huge step because lots of nations and cities followed suit,” Alanna Byrne, media coordinator and activist at Extinction Rebellion UK, told The Independent.
Three in four people now view climate change as a major threat, according to a survey of more than 24,000 people across 19 countries by the Pew Research Center last year.
“How climate change is talked about in society has changed for the better and there’s much less climate change denialism,” Dr Oscar Berglund, a lecturer in international public and social policy at the University of Bristol who researches activism, told The Independent.
Meanwhile, the pandemic years have brought a surge of smaller activist groups, who are frustrated by the lacklustre progress and favour guerrilla-style actions and attention-grabbing stunts.
Just Stop Oil and Insulate Britain protesters have chained themselves to oil depots and blocked major roads, at times leading to angry confrontations with drivers. In the US, Declare Emergency blocked Washington DC’s busy Beltway on Fourth of July weekend and activists with Scientists Rebellion, an XR offshoot, chained themselves to a Los Angeles bank.
These more outrageous tactics can normalize climate action more broadly.
“There’s always a radical flank that makes the moderate force look more reasonable,” Noah J. Gordon, acting co-director of the sustainability, climate and geopolitics program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told The Independent. “Extinction Rebellion started out as a radical group but have become more mainstream as climate politics have become more salient, invidious and urgent, existential even. [XR] will look very moderate, I think, if you look back from 2030 or 2040.”
Governments have latched on to the civil disobedience to introduce harsher measures against protest. The UK’s Conservative government introduced a public order bill criminalizing “disruptive” protest -which includes if they are deemed too noisy.
In the US, Republican-led state legislatures have passed a number of anti-protest laws under the guise of protecting infrastructure, Inside Climate News reported. (The GOP’s rush to criminalize protest also followed Black Lives Matter marches spurred by the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer.)
In December, a top United Nations official expressed deep concern after an Australian climate protester was sentenced to 15 months for temporarily blocking one lane of traffic on the Sydney Harbour Bridge. New laws have been put in place in Australia which climate protesters told The New York Times are aimed at them.
In authoritarian police states, the consequences are even more chilling. Ahead of the Cop27 climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh in November, more than 300 anti-government protesters were rounded up and arrested in Egypt.
Yet, as democratic norms are quietly dismantled and global greenhouse gas emissions continue to soar, the number of people joining climate protests has plateaued.
“The reality is that the climate movement is not growing exponentially,” Ms Byrne told The Independent. “Groups like Insulate Britain and Just Stop Oil have really changed the conversation around public disruption in an amazing way but people aren’t coming out in droves to do that.”
A public faced with overlapping crises of pandemic, war, racial injustice, poverty, and fraying social safety-nets appears to have wearied.
Half the respondents of a recent survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania said disruptive actions like shutting down traffic and targeting art works decreased their support for efforts to tackle climate change. Only 13 per cent said the actions increased their support.
And while 75 per cent of people in the UK are aware of XR, the group is disliked by 41 per cent and popular only with a minority, a YouGov poll found. The message seems to have resonated with XR – but they won’t be giving up civil disobedience entirely.
Ms Byrne explained the new strategy is to “aim disruption at the perpetrators, at government, help people join the dots between the cause and effect”. (Case in point: The offices of Tory minister Michael Gove were recently doused in black paint after his decision to green-light the Cumbrian coal mine).
Its decentralized structure means that an XR group announcement is not a universal edict. For instance, the XR New York chapter released a supportive statement for the UK’s “temporary reorientation in tactics” but said “public disruption must remain in our arsenal…”
Ms Byrne acknowledged that what goes for one, will not be for all.
“We started encouraging our base to put a little less energy in direct action, and spend more time engaging with people in their communities,” she noted, before pointing to the huge unrest across the UK with government policies which has led to strikes from unions of train drivers, nurses, ambulance drivers, teachers and civil servants.
“There’s common ground between these different groups,” Ms Byrne said. “We need to be speaking to trade unions and workers who are going to be at the heart of the [green] transition and create a space that’s more accessible for thousands of people to come together, and become impossible for the government to ignore.”
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