The limits of Extinction Rebellion

Extinction Rebellion flags in Bristol July 2019

(reading time: 4 mins)

Why was I absent from Bristol’s Extinction Rebellion protests last week? I’m a left leaning voter who accepts time is running out for climate change action. Last winter I spent eight days upgrading my loft insulation to reduce my gas consumption by about 10% – which is one of many actions I’ve taken to reduce my carbon output. So why did I cycle past the protest each day instead of joining in?

Although XR are doing an important job of keeping climate change in the news cycle, I believe there’s a limit to what XR’s protests will achieve.

Firstly while the group’s name reflects the uncomfortable truth – unchecked climate change really could bring about the extinction of our species – sounding that alarm is unlikely to influence many climate change skeptics. Humans prefer to be re-assured than alarmed and we like putting things off until the last minute.

I don’t say this to make pithy observations about human nature, I say it because these tendencies are a serious issue where climate change is concerned. The fossil fuel industry have vast resources and lobbying power which consistently deliver the message that we can just carry on as we are. Their message is a perfect fit for those basic flaws in human nature.

Secondly for anyone who seeks to turn the tide, are they aware of how they are perceived by those still going with the tide? Even non-skeptics can be annoyed by disruption. On Weds 17th July 2019 the Bristol group went outside the official planned protest and blocked the M32 motorway, causing a son to miss his father’s dying moments. Sadly this very personal tragedy will be what some remember of XR’s protest. And I’ll bet many others will view the protest as a bit self-indulgent, especially when their daily life is forced to detour around a yoga session on a blocked road.

And that brings up the third reason I wasn’t at XR protests. The tent covered Castle Park had a festival feel this week. And with the drumming and chanting it just wasn’t really me. Without meaning to offend any protesters, I would say it all looks a bit “knit your own yoghurt” (to quote Alexi Sayle). This is the cultural baggage that comes with XR’s street protests. No matter how inclusive they aim to be, they are mostly appealing to a white and middle class demographic.

With the rise of populism, and the ideological silos of social media, political identity dominates politics now, frequently forcing any rational policy discussion into second place. So XR should be careful that in strengthening their own group identity, this does not leave others who also want climate change action feeling excluded – to repeat my point above, a yoga session on a closed bridge sends a signal about who these protests are for.

The UK right wing media contains plenty of climate change skepticism, even denial. The total circulation of The Sun, Daily Mail, Telegraph, Times and Daily Express is around 3.6 million. The left leaning Guardian and Mirror, only 0.6 million. Were there any Daily Mail readers at XR’s protests? Precious few I would guess. And how many more viewed XR’s protest as the unwelcome actions of people they have little in common with, which means their message can be safely ignored?

The Extinction Rebellion banners say ‘System change not climate change’ which sounds radical. But XR have no specific policy solutions to achieve the seemingly impossible task of removing fossil fuels from the world economy. They are right that humanity must stop measuring success purely in GDP terms, which is at record levels while poverty continues and we torch the planet’s dwindling resources. But this obvious insanity has not led to a surge in support for the left. Frustration with an economic system that primarily serves the already wealthy has led to Brexit and right-wing populists like Trump.

Don’t get me wrong. Extinction Rebellion should continue to protest and keep climate change in the headlines. But to get lasting and meaningful change, policies with cross-party appeal are essential. One of these is some form of carbon dividend, which calls for widespread carbon taxation, but unlike other taxes all the income is divided equally among the citizenry, instead of going into government coffers (I discuss the pros and cons in this post.

The dividend appears both in the UK Green Party policy statement and is the key aim of heavily Republican/Libertarian US group The Climate Leadership Council. Our politicians are thinking in 5 year election cycles and we are running out of time to win over enough climate skeptics. Surely the Green Party should be heavily promoting the carbon dividend because ideologically it works for the small government right as much as it fits the left’s primary purpose of making society more equitable?

The environmental left must also understand the consumer desire for the latest technology. Tesla have single-handedly changed the perception of zero emission electric cars, which sell as much for their high comfort level, technology and low running costs as they do for their contribution to air quality and lowering carbon. Yet despite increasing climate awareness petrol and diesel SUVs are more popular than ever. The left must make the argument that low carbon transport is better – quieter, more comfortable, versatile and more efficient.

I’m not saying electric cars will save the planet – all cars consume resources. But there is no sign people are tiring of consumerism or switching to public transport quickly enough to significantly reduce fossil energy demand. Those resources must become low carbon as soon as possible, and promoting quality of life improvements in a post fossil fuel world is the carrot that is needed to persuade skeptics that ending the oil age is a positive thing. I believe that is needed every bit as much as environmentalists, scientists and grass roots groups like XR continuing to ring the climate alarm bell.