Features > Environment
22 April 2020
David Wilkin is a sociologist and retired Professor of Health Services Research. He has been active over many years in progressive politics in and around Manchester.
Extinction Rebellion: Climate change protest in the context of a pandemic
David Wilkin explores the positives and negatives from our experience of Covid-19 so we can campaign more effectively for action on climate change and biodiversity loss
IN MIDST of the Covid-19 pandemic, the consequent lockdown of normal life and the news cycle dominated by these, it is difficult to focus on anything other than immediate concerns and priorities. However, it is essential that we do not allow our immediate concerns to divert attention away from the very real and pressing challenges facing us when we begin to emerge from the pandemic. Covid-19 represents an existential threat to each of us and our loved ones at a personal level. The need to respond to the pandemic constitutes a threat to people’s livelihoods, health and well being. Nevertheless, Covid-19 does not represent an existential threat to humanity. With a death rate estimated to be between 1 and 3% it has the potential to kill millions, but when compared to the Black Death which is reckoned to have killed between 30 and 60% of the European population it is at the lower end of the spectrum of possible life threatening pandemics. This is not to understate the damage to individuals, the economy and the fabric of our society that Covid-19 will do. However, the threat to society and ultimately to humanity posed by the consequences of climate change and loss of biodiversity is far greater, although spread over a much longer time period. Indeed one of the consequences of global warming and loss of wildlife habitat will be to increase the risks of pandemics through increased animal to human transmission and vector-borne diseases (diseases such as malaria transmitted to humans through insect bites). Now is the time to be thinking about how we can ensure that action on climate change and biodiversity loss can be brought to the forefront of policy as we emerge from Covid-19. Extinction Rebellion and the international youth movement inspired by Greta Thunberg have succeeded in raising awareness of the issues over the past year. Covid-19 has caused a pause in those campaigns. We need to think about how the pandemic, our responses to it and the likely aftermath might alter campaigning and political action on climate change. I will focus on Extinction Rebellion, its achievements and limitations, and offer some thoughts on how the pandemic and our responses to it might offer opportunities and different challenges.
Extinction Rebellion: aims and achievements.
Extinction Rebellion (XR) is a global environmental movement with the stated aim of using non-violent civil disobedience to compel government action to avoid tipping points in the climate system, biodiversity loss and the risk of social and ecological collapse. It was established in the UK in May 2018 with a hundred academics signing a call to action and launched in October 2018 by Roger Hallam, Gail Bradbrook and other activists from the campaign group Rising Up. In November 2018 five bridges across the river Thames were blockaded and in April 2019 XR occupied five prominent sites in central London with actions continuing for 11 days and resulting in over a thousand arrests. XR’s key demands were:
- Declare a climate emergency
- Commit to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2025
- Create a Citizens Assembly on climate and ecological justice to create legislation for action on net zero target
Since the initial action in spring last year XR in the UK has established a large network of local groups organising local actions and contributing to national actions. It has occupied the Scottish Parliament and council chambers in various towns and cities. It disrupted London Fashion Week and London City Airport. It has been successful in grabbing media attention through spraying fake blood on the Treasury, and activists gluing themselves to Docklands Light Railway and London Underground. A further round of protests took place in London in October as part of International Rebellion.
XR has been one of the most successful, innovative and well organised social protest movements of recent years. It has clearly had a substantial impact in raising public awareness of climate change, biodiversity loss and ecological collapse. It has played a role in getting politicians at local and national levels to make declarations of a climate emergency and at least appear to be taking the issues seriously, although the gap between declarations and actions is increasingly obvious. It has not of course been alone in raising the profile of climate change both nationally and internationally. The youth movement and Greta Thunberg in particular have, arguably, had a greater public impact. She has certainly captured global media attention with a clear and consistent message. XR has been successful in drawing in lots of older activists, veterans of CND, anti-apartheid, Greenham Common, Occupy, anti-fracking, etc., but it has also succeeded in involving large numbers of younger activists, many of whom have no previous experience of protest and political action. Like all protest movements XR performs a valuable role in giving participants a sense that they are not alone. We should not underestimate the importance of giving people a sense of solidarity and agency rather than just feeling overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the task before us. It has also played an important role in changing the language of the climate change debate. It has normalised the use of terms such as climate emergency, extinction crisis and breakdown, which have become part of everyday discourse. So in the space of 18 months XR and other climate change protests have had some considerable success in moving climate change up the political agenda, to the extent that we did see a televised debate between party leaders on the issue at the last election, albeit one notable for the absence of Boris Johnson.
However, if we measure XR’s achievements against its own objectives set out above, progress remains very limited. Declarations of a climate emergency have indeed been made at various levels of government, but declarations are the easy part and we have seen precious little progress towards achieving the other aims of net zero greenhouse emissions, Citizen’s Assemblies and legislation. Before Covid-19 XR was about to embark on a second year of its strategy to achieve its aims through mass nonviolent civil disobedience.
XR: A flawed change strategy?
Roger Hallam set out a proposed strategy for achieving change in his booklet Common Sense for the 21st Century: Only nonviolent rebellion can now stop climate breakdown and social collapse. While the strategy has been developed over the past year through XR’s many participating groups, its core elements remain the same. At its heart is repeated nonviolent action which disrupts everyday life, with mass arrests as a core tactic. It draws on evidence and experience from successful movements such as the US Civil Rights Movement led by figures such as Martin Luther King and the Indian independence movement against British rule in India led by Mahatma Gandhi. XR argue that research evidence shows that when 3.5 % of a population is actively committed to a cause and participating in nonviolent protests they are largely guaranteed to succeed. Last year’s actions were intended to cause major disruption to the functioning of London and other centres with the explicit intention of provoking the police to repeatedly arrest protestors. Hallam is clear that the aim should be to provoke arrest and imprisonment in a similar approach to that adopted by the suffragettes. As the state is forced to adopt more and more repressive measures to quell the protests and maintain normal life, the movement will draw in more supporters opposed to the repressive actions of the state. Governments will thus be forced to negotiate and accept the legitimate demands of the movement.
Nafeez Ahmed has provided a constructive critique of XR’s change strategy in an article published by Insurge Intelligence in October 2019. He argues that XR has misunderstood the movements it draws inspiration from. In both the US civil rights and Indian independence movements there was a direct organic connection between the people protesting and the repressive institutions being disrupted through the direct actions. That is why they were able to rapidly build momentum and achieve change. This is not the case with XR. He questions the 3.5 % of the population to achieve system change, pointing out that the evidence to support this is derived from research on resistance to repressive authoritarian regimes. The research suggests what level of support is necessary to achieve regime change. It provides scant evidence that might be relevant to issues-based protest in Western liberal democracies. The strategy of civil disobedience resulting in mass arrests is based on a model of how mobilising mass populations to cease their “obedience” to the state can overturn centralised states. The more the state resorts to violence, the more illegitimate it will appear in the eyes of the wider public. When challenged, the state depends on its monopoly over the means of violence. XR’s strategy anticipates an escalating cycle of arrests and imprisonment which will be seen as increasingly illegitimate by the wider public, drawing in more support for the movement. But this depends on the wider public’s acceptance that the disruption itself is legitimate. XR’s actions in London attracted a mixed response, but specific actions such as against London Underground generated very negative responses. Unless the movement is embedded in local communities, Ahmed argues that it will struggle to win the support of those communities whose lives are disrupted by its actions. Lastly, Ahmed criticises the race and class privilege embedded in XR’s strategy.
“In a diverse capital city where institutionalised racism is an ongoing issue and inequalities are entrenched, the strategy is likely to lend itself to tabloid criticisms claiming XR is not actually a mass movement, but a parochial one, limited to a specific privileged constituency ... [It will] ... potentially reinforce divisions along class, ethnic, racial and religious lines, resulting in the movement being incapable of galvanising mass support in a diverse society”
Ahmed’s critique of XR’s strategy and tactics is intended to be constructive and to promote a discussion about how the movement can change in ways that will give it a better chance of achieving its core objectives. It was written before the world had woken up to the Covid-19 pandemic. While the pandemic has put the movement on hold, the questions raised by Ahmed will need to be addressed when we come out of lockdown and are once again faced with how to achieve the scale of emergency action required to limit global warming and protect the world from the rapid loss of biodiversity. However, I think we also need to look at how the pandemic and our response to it will change the context in which XR and other protest movements operate.
How might Covid-19 change the campaign for action on climate change and biodiversity loss?
While it is still very early in the course of the pandemic, we can already identify ways in which Covid-19 itself and our responses to it have changed the economic, social and political landscape. Different countries have been affected to varying degrees and their responses to the virus have also differed. However, across the world the pandemic has disrupted normal life in ways that would have seemed inconceivable a couple of months ago. The 2008 financial crash was a similar shock to the system, but there are important differences. Following the bail-out of the banks the system was able to return to business as usual, albeit with a very slow economic recovery and a very high price paid by large sections of the population. Post Covid-19, some commentators similarly anticipate a gradual return to business as usual and most people will wish to return to their normal lives as quickly as possible. However, the current crisis is different in many ways from the 2008 financial crash. It threatens to destabilise many aspects of our economic and social lives in ways that will prevent a return to business as usual. It has become clear to all that our systems are incredibly vulnerable to the sort of threat posed by a new virus. But Covid-19 is not an exogenous or “black swan” event (an unpredictable event that is beyond what is normally expected and has potentially severe consequences). It (or some variant of it) was widely predicted and we can be sure that we will face other potentially more dangerous threats in the future whether from zoonotic disease, vector-born disease, antibiotic-resistant disease, etc. Any of these has the potential to massively disrupt our economic and social systems. However, they are not unrelated to the threats posed by global warming and biodiversity loss. On the contrary, global warming and biodiversity loss through our exploitation of the natural environment play a major role in increasing our risk from disease. But as we are all now aware, they also bring much greater threats directly through desertification of large parts of the earth, sea level rises causing inundation of vast areas around our coastlines, mass population movements, increased volatility in our weather systems causing droughts and flooding, etc. We will continue to look to movements like XR to force governments to urgently respond to these threats. I think there are some positive and negative messages to be drawn from our experience of Covid-19 and our responses to it that should affect how we can more effectively campaign for action on climate change and biodiversity loss.
- The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the inherent weaknesses in our globalised economic and financial systems which might provide a stimulus to seeking alternative ways of organising our economy and society. There is a growing realisation that globalised just-in-time supply chains are extremely vulnerable and it will become increasingly obvious that the free movement of capital around the world will further destabilise economies trying to recover from the current crisis. Moves towards more localised production and distribution could have a positive effect in terms of our ability to reduce carbon emissions.
- The vulnerability of our food supply in the UK, and the impact of our food consumption habits have been highlighted. The appearance of Covid-19 is related to our exploitation of land in ways that have encroached on wildlife and pushed poor people off land. An increasing awareness of the fragility of our food supply could lead to changes in both food production and food consumption, and importantly can alter people’s perception of how we can change to more sustainable levels of consumption and methods of production.
- Our response to Covid-19 has demonstrated to a generation that did not experience two world wars and the rebuilding of economies and societies after those wars, how the state can take control of whole economies and change behaviour on a massive scale. Having grown up in a world where people were told that only the market can meet our needs and wants, it has become apparent in the past two months that only the state can act to protect and care for us in the current crisis. Who would have thought that virtually all air travel could be stopped in a matter of weeks?
- Covid-19 has demonstrated that the decision to impose 10 years of austerity on the poorest in our society was always a political choice. Some will say that it shows that there is such a thing as a magic money tree. More importantly our response in the UK and elsewhere, including the USA, has shown that decisions about finance are political decisions and not the result of irresistible market forces.
- Responses to the pandemic across the world have demonstrated that something approaching a universal basic income is possible, even if only on a temporary basis. Even five years ago the notion of a universal basic income was considered an impossible dream. While we should be under no illusion that these crisis measures will lead to a longer term change in themselves, it is how they change people’s perception of what is possible that is important.
- The international scientific community has shown how collaboration through sharing data and the results of ongoing research into understanding the virus, testing possible treatments and developing a vaccine can achieve rapid progress. It demonstrates the power of transparency and collaboration, although concerns will remain about how big pharma will attempt to control access to treatments and vaccines in the interests of profit.
- We have seen that it is possible to redirect manufacturing production at relatively short notice to serve the public good. Who would have thought that Burberry would be making PPE or that car manufacturers would be producing ventilators?
- Our response to Covid-19 has demonstrated that we have the capacity to act collectively to change behaviour in the face of a perceived threat. In recent weeks we have shown that we are capable of taking personal actions (social distancing, hand washing, face masks, etc.) as part of a collective response. While this is underpinned by a legal requirement, our individual behaviours are largely driven by our shared commitment rather than the threat of punishment.
- At a local level our response to Covid-19 has demonstrated the power of local neighbourhoods and communities to behave with concern, kindness, compassion and love for our fellow human beings. We have shown that the informal networks of neighbourhood and community are a powerful force in responding to a shared threat.
This list is by no means intended to be exhaustive. It is intended to illustrate how the pandemic itself and our responses to it might change our behaviour and the ways in which we see the world that go beyond the immediate crisis. I suggest that all of the above are relevant to the question of how we might respond to the climate and biodiversity emergencies once we emerge from the immediate threat of the current pandemic. They all provide grounds for optimism about how we might change both public perception of the threats and political action to address the threats. However, it is important to recognise that there are also potential negative effects of the pandemic and responses to it.
- The measures to contain and manage Covid-19 have already and will continue to cause immense suffering and loss of life in addition to that resulting directly from the virus. The effects of lockdown on the most vulnerable members of our society include a big increase in children living in poverty, increases in food poverty, increased domestic violence and abuse, increased mental illness and increased avoidable morbidity and mortality from other causes (because of lack of treatment). All of these effects will create great pressure to return to “normal” as quickly as possible. It is difficult to tell people who are already suffering greatly that they should be concerned with the less immediate threats posed by climate change and biodiversity loss. When you are hungry, sick and in debt you need food, treatment and a job now.
- Covid-19 is already providing fertile ground for right wing nationalist responses which threaten to undermine co-operation and joint action to tackle global threats. The logic is to build walls and borders to keep people and diseases at bay. We are already seeing pressure to isolate and punish China. Trump has pulled funding for the WHO. Orban in Hungary is ruling by decree. Nationalists in Europe see an opportunity to undermine the European Union. The responses to Covid-19 have been taken at national level with inconsistent action and little attempt at global co-operation, apart from at the level of science mentioned above. All of which suggests that it may prove an even bigger struggle to achieve global collaboration on climate change and biodiversity loss.
- While the pandemic may seem to have shifted attention away from conflict and wars, we need to remember that wars such as those in Syria and Yemen continue to kill and maim. Moreover, nationalistic responses to Covid-19 have the potential to increase existing tensions, and provoke new tensions thus increasing the likelihood of conflict. The threat of war and nuclear war has not gone away and may be increased as a result of the pandemic.
- Aside from the issues facing the most vulnerable mentioned above, all of us have experienced major disruption to our lives. We have been unable to see family and friends, to take holidays, to travel, to eat out, to play and watch sports, etc, etc. As we emerge from lockdown there will be tremendous pressure to get our lives back to some semblance of what we previously considered to be normal While it is difficult to see the cruise industry or even the airline industry returning to previous levels of activity even in the medium term, the pressure to return to normal will make it difficult to persuade people that we now need to adopt emergency measures to tackle global warming and biodiversity loss.
As with the positives, this is by no means an exhaustive list of the potential negative consequences for action on climate change and biodiversity loss. It is intended to help us to think about the challenges facing us in the next few years and how the current pandemic may have changed things in both positive and negative ways.
Climate Change, protest and politics after the pandemic
Some might argue that now is not the time to be focusing on the challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss, that we should concentrate exclusively on meeting the immediate challenges of the pandemic. But now is precisely the time to be thinking ahead about how we might take forward the protests and political action which will be required to tackle the much bigger threats to humanity that are already on the horizon. I have argued that despite its notable achievements in its first year, the strategy of the XR movement already contained fundamental flaws that have been identified by others. Closing down cities, filling the courts and being prepared to go to prison will not win the mass support that is necessary or produce the fundamental changes in policy and practice that are required. I do not propose to advance an alternative strategy since that needs to come out of the debates within XR itself. I will conclude with some observations about the context in which that debate will take place.
One of the questions to be asked is whether the pandemic reflects a much wider failure of complex global systems (climate, ecological, globalised production and markets, international finance, governance, etc). Each of these systems is both complex and potentially fragile, as we saw in 2008 and again in 2020. But also each of these systems is intimately connected with all of the other systems. Are we approaching a situation in which major disturbances in one system create disturbances in all of the other systems leading to synchronous failures across systems which are difficult or impossible to fully address within the confines of the existing economic and social order? Will such system failures fundamentally undermine the dominant capitalist economic order, or at least its current neoliberal market driven version? We may begin to see alternative models of production and consumption arising within the dominant capitalist model. If so, how can we promote responses to system failures that address the climate and biodiversity emergencies?
At a more local and immediate level, there will be much debate about how economic recovery and reconstruction should proceed. It is essential that we campaign for that recovery and reconstruction to take on board a green agenda aimed at rapidly reducing carbon emissions, and conserving natural resources. This could include some form of “Green New Deal”. What is important is that we resist the temptation to return to business as usual. This will not be easy. We are already seeing the effectiveness of powerful industrial lobbies. In the UK the government has approved work on HS2 restarting in the midst of lockdown. In the USA work on the Keystone XL pipeline to bring oil from Canada’s tar sands to Texas is proceeding at pace while protesters are locked down. While state support is going directly to individuals it is also going in large amounts to many of the same corporations who are the biggest polluters and fossil fuel producers and users. XR, other protest movements and progressive political parties need to be at the forefront of resisting such developments and promoting an alternative agenda. But simply continuing the protest movement as before is no longer an option.
When we begin to emerge from Covid-19 we will in the UK still have a Tory government with a large majority and four years in office. Even with a new Labour leadership, we cannot simply wait for the next election and hope that the electoral system will deliver a progressive government able to swing into action to tackle the climate and biodiversity emergencies. It is my view that we need now to start building coalitions of progressive forces with a shared commitment to a new green agenda. Such coalitions need to involve existing political parties but also mass movements like XR. I believe that a fundamental precondition for success in building such coalitions is a change to the first-past-the-post voting system. The Labour Party in particular needs to understand that first-past-the-post, while it may deliver periodic progressive government for relatively short periods, is not going to provide the basis for a long-term progressive agenda. This will only be achieved by building coalitions around policies capable of addressing the existential threats facing us.
Roger Hallam, Common Sense for the 21st Century: Only nonviolent rebellion can now stop climate breakdown and social collapse,
Nafeez Ahmed, The flawed social science behind Extinction Rebellion’s change strategy, Insurge Intelligence,