Why Extinction Rebellion’s Tactics Are Deeply Misguided

Extinction Rebellion’s latest protest against ‘recalcitrant public authorities’ in the fight against climate has been this week to blockade the most strategic road junction in the city of Cambridge.  And as a spin-out action to dig-up one of the ancient manicured lawns owned by Trinity College.  It certainly makes for good visual media.  And it ensures that most of the residents of Cambridge, if not parts of the wider British public, are aware of their protest. 

But does this form of social action really help efforts to stop global climate change?  My fear is that it does just the opposite.

Extinction Rebellion Cambridge’s choice of target – as with last autumn’s attempt to disrupt London’s commuters getting to work by public transport – is surely bizarre.  Cambridge City Council is run by Labour, who occupy 26 of the 42 elected councillors.  Liberal Democrats fill 15 of the remaining 16 seats, with 1 Independent.  There are no Tories and not a whiff of the Brexit Party.  As local authorities go, Cambridge is one of the more environmentally and socially progressive in the UK, it’s elected officials having already declared a ‘climate emergency’.

So why target this Council?  What more are XR asking for?  They are demanding no less than an overthrow of Britain’s tradition of local democratic accountability.

One of the reasons for this week’s blockade by XR Cambridge is the failure of this elected City Council to concede statutory power to an unelected Citizen’s Assembly.  XR have called on the City Council to establish a Citizens’ Assembly on Climate Justice, with membership directed by XR.  Furthermore, this Assembly must be granted significant decision-making powers and a binding mandate upon which the City Council must act.

This is a demand that no local authority in the UK could accede to, as XR well know.  It would amount to subverting Britain’s representative democracy and handing over power to an appointed panel of non-representative citizens.  This might be the form of democracy XR wish to see in a climate emergency.  But there is something deeply ironic about a social protest movement seeking “more democracy” by subverting democracy.

And it is just one example of the very dangerous politics of ‘emergency’ declarations.

Over the past two years XR have steered the public narrative in the UK on climate change in a dangerous direction.  Together with new political actors such as Greta Thunberg, their rhetoric of extinction, deadlines and ‘too-late’ has cultivated a public sense of panic, anger, fear and grief, especially amongst young people.

This is no basis upon which to prosecute the serious and difficult business of initiating climate policies that will minimise human influence on the global climate.  Declaring ‘climate emergencies’ and demanding that more and more public bodies issue extravagant pledges to deliver ever more extreme promises about what will be accomplished on ever-diminishing timescales is engaging in merely performative politics. 

The public drama of XR’s ever more extreme tactics of protest fuels such shallow thinking.

This was brought home to me last week when I met the CEO of a large local authority in England.  This person was quite angry at the ease with which this authority’s elected councillors were able to declare a climate emergency and were now ratcheting up ever greater ‘claims’ about what this authority was going to do to stop the climate crisis.  (I have heard the same frustration voiced to me from civil servants in two other local authorities).

This particular CEO I spoke with last week takes the challenges of climate change very seriously. But they were deeply dismayed and frustrated at the naivety displayed by those councillors who have bought into this performative politics of climate change.  Public officials do not have the luxury of emanating virtuous rhetoric; they have to deliver across a large range of statutory and regulatory targets.

The forms of protests that Extinction Rebellion Cambridge have engaged in this week risk alienating the large majority of the public upon which any sensible climate policies must rely.  It is not surprising that the ordinary citizens of Cambridge have organised a public petition complaining against their disruptive tactics, a petition now signed by 10% of the city’s voting population.

Extinction Rebellion’s tactics are deeply misguided and will cause blow-back, not just amongst the British public, but perhaps even more worringly from the very public bodies and creative and civic-minded professionals that are central to innovating, guiding and implementing the changes that Britain will need in the decades ahead.

The scale of the challenge of reversing human influence on the climate system is truly huge, both temporally and globally.  Ironically, XR’s narrative fails to recognise this.  They need to retire their claim that no-one in power is ‘telling the truth’ or ‘doing anything’ about climate change.  And using artificial deadlines to accelerate policies opens the door for poor decision-making and increases the likelihood of perverse outcomes.  XR need to stop using climate change merely as an emotive symbol through which to vent their anger at everyone with whom they think they disagree.

In short, it is time for Extinction Rebellion to get serious about climate change – to take scientific evidence more seriously than they do, to work with the divergent values of a heterogeneous public, many of which they will disagree with, and to respect the non-linear politics of a democracy.

Mike Hulme, Cambridge, 20 February 2020