Extinction Rebellion must soften their tactics to combat the climate crisis

The historical shift from environmentalists ridiculed as ‘hippies’ to being stamped as ‘ecomaniacs’ and ‘dangerous’ by media tabloids indicates movements like Extinction Rebellion are anything but a dying fire. 

Despite being three years young, the organisation has gained universal stead as the intergenerational symbol for environmental activism, galvanising membership across 70 countries and dominating the global conversation on responding to climate change. 

From a state centred perspective, the attitude is starkly different. 

The UK has thrown its hat in the ring by declaring a ‘climate emergency’ in May 2019 alongside committing to eliminating its GHG emissions to net-zero by 2050. As history can attest, however, statements are hollow gestures in the absence of action.

How can recently announced government plans supporting a new deep coal mine in Cumbria reconcile with the UK’s alleged ambitions for a safe future? The situation appears all the more unbelievable considering the UK will host the UN Climate Change conference in November – the pièce de résistance on this cake of controversy. 

This perfectly exemplifies that states will use the veil of social movements in an attempt to present themselves as progressive, yet will always place greater weight on supporting their economic lifeline to the natural atmosphere’s detriment, as is habitual practice. 

Extinction Rebellion’s ideologies do not pose difficulty, as to call global warming a hoax in 2021 is incompatible with science. The problem is both the organisation’s nature and approach to raising awareness. Describing itself as apolitical fails to align with the reality that decisions and methods required to tackle climate change are inherently politicised. Movements, even internationalised ones like Extinction Rebellion, will only ever reach grass roots level of change without political backing. 

Arguably, the group have shattered any foreseeable civil political collaboration when quite literally, on Earth Day nine activists recently shattered a dozen of HSBC’s headquarter windows. The targeted attack was in response to HSBC’s pledge to reduce its carbon footprint to net-zero by 2050, raising eyebrows as its existing climate plan finances coal power. 

Further, graffitiing Shell headquarters with the activist mantra ‘Shell Knew’ nods to the fact that the world’s second largest oil and gas company has consciously omitted from addressing their conduct for a number of years. Despite expressing commitment to reducing its emissions by 50% by 2050, it is valid to consider such ambition as superficial, considering Shell’s profit is generated by harvesting fossil fuel for globalised oil demands. 

The attack on Shell will be a stubborn smudge to wipe from the government’s perception of Extinction Rebellion, not least since the perpetrators were arrested for criminal damage, though have recently been acquitted. 

From the general public’s point of view, property destruction invites connotations of violence and unruliness, failing to correlate with the movement describing its actions as “an act of care”. It cannot be denied that maintaining such extreme conduct risks derailing the movement and alienating society to characterise environmentalists as hysterical fanatics. Even the suffragettes, who initially adopted militant tactics in the 20th century to secure women the vote, realised their efforts were best placed on compelling politicians via peaceful means through petitioning and mass assemblies. 

What then, of the future? It is foreseeable that most governments will put climate change on the backburner to prioritise economic development hampered by coronavirus restrictions.

Winning the public’s hearts and minds to positively engage with the issue will not be achieved by rash and direct civil disobedience. To appeal, Extinction Rebellion must soften its tactics to relate to the identities of those who could be persuaded: parents, employees, the religious. Only then will lasting relationships be forged, leaving their legacy as informed architects for generation preservation. 

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Laura Gooding

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October 2021
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