24th October 2019

Extinction Rebellion risks its own demise with rash action


  The Extinction Rebellion ‘hourglass’. Photo credit: Alan Doyle
The Extinction Rebellion ‘hourglass’. Photo credit: Alan Doyle

Londoners abide by one simple rule and ignore it at their peril: whatever you do, don’t mess with the commuters.

Last week, Extinction Rebellion protesters, either oblivious to this rule or brave enough to test it, incurred the wrath of the literal East Enders when they staged a disruptive early-morning protest at Canning Town Tube station.

Just before 7am, a small group clambered atop a train and unfurled banners, stopping it from leaving the station. Even the eco-friendliest of London professionals would have struggled to sympathise. The assembled commuters, bleary-eyed and now increasingly late, responded by throwing food, drink, and insults at the protesters, and by dragging one down, kicking if not screaming, from the train. It all came dangerously close to mob violence.

The video quickly made the rounds online, and many viewers, who had probably just spent an hour of their own time stuck in traffic or crammed onto a sweaty, overfilled bus, expressed their solidarity—just not with the protesters.

Following the backlash, representatives from Extinction Rebellion said the stunt had been a mistake. Leaked messages showed that the majority in the London group’s private Telegram chat did not support it, either. However, the incident, along with a similar one in the States, seemed to show for the first time the public’s frustration with some of Extinction Rebellion’s tactics.

Former president Mary Robinson, who, as the UN’s Special Envoy on Climate and head of her own climate change foundation, is no stranger to environmental activism, said:

I hope they [Extinction Rebellion] will be very smart about their tactics, because if they alienate the public, that will put us a step backwards… I think it is very, very important that the public display of disruption is seen by the public as being in their interests, and that has happened. But if they lose that, that would be very serious.

  Extinction Rebellion protesters douse the UK Treasury Building with fake blood.
Extinction Rebellion protesters douse the UK Treasury Building with fake blood.

In nearly all developed countries, the public are in agreement that climate change is a major threat. Since the European elections in May, the so-called ‘Greta effect’ has returned regional assemblies and national parliaments with a distinctly greener hue.

A recent Irish Times poll shows that most in this country believe that climate change is “the most serious issue facing the world”, while most Irish businesses think they can do more to tackle it. Lawmakers are paying attention to this attitude shift. Only a fortnight ago, the Minister for Finance announced hikes on petrol and diesel and an annual increase in carbon tax to 2030.

The public, then, is broadly speaking on Extinction Rebellion’s side: both want some form of environmental action. But this relationship is not guaranteed. While the Canning Town incident hasn’t completely squandered Extinction Rebellion’s public goodwill, it has damaged it. There is a danger that without structure, leadership, and greater clarity of message, the group’s random acts of disruption will serve only to erode the support of the masses.

Pragmatism versus idealism

The international climate action movement is of course not a singular one, but just as the Occupy movement of the early 2010s came to embody anti-austerity and anti-capitalism, Extinction Rebellion, for better or for worse, has become the standard bearer of global green activism.

By design, Extinction Rebellion has no hierarchical leadership. Each national Extinction Rebellion group is autonomous and free to stage whatever kind of demonstration it likes, provided it abides by the group’s core tenets.

While this may work at the grassroots level, it’s not a practical way of meaningfully communicating with the presidents, parliaments, CEOs, and venture capitalists with the power to effect rapid change. The group’s fluid and indefinable nature allows every journalist and politician to create their own ‘version’ of Extinction Rebellion. If the ‘wrong’ version becomes the prevailing one, this could negatively influence public perception and political response.

While David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg have become de facto faces of the climate action movement, they are influencers, not leaders—and a leader is what is lacking. Extinction Rebellion, or whatever replaces or succeeds it, needs someone moderate at the helm.

That person must be passionate about climate action, understand the nuances of global politics and economics, appeal across the ideological spectrum, and have the pragmatism to negotiate one-on-one with decision-makers, even if they’re not on the same ‘team’.

  Theodore Roosevelt was a Republican multimillionaire and a hunter. He was also one of the United States’ most renowned conservationists.
Theodore Roosevelt was a Republican multimillionaire and a hunter. He was also one of the United States’ most renowned conservationists.

A unifying movement

One of the United States’ first and greatest conservationists was President Theodore Roosevelt. He created the United States Forestry Service and signed the 1906 American Antiquities Act, which would later transform 230 million acres of public land into national parks.

Not only was Roosevelt an avid hunter and rancher, he was also a Republican capitalist. He understood the finiteness of natural resources and despised waste, yet he knew that human civilisation could (and should) benefit materially from the natural world without being exploitative.

There seems to be little space for this ‘centrist’ position in the contemporary climate action movement. Moderate politicians, scientists, and climate advocates, on both the left and the right, have ceded much of the climate agenda to radical protesters with unrealistic and often absurd objectives; apocalypticism has replaced realism.

Extinction Rebellion seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025—that means that in just over five years, no airliners can fly, no petrol or diesel cars can be on the road, and no home boilers can run on oil or gas.

For the activist who believes that life on Earth faces imminent mass extinction, patience is understandably not a virtue. However, unless there is some miraculously orchestrated reorganisation of global society, which would necessitate unprecedented government intervention into how people and organisations can live their lives and conduct business, this goal is patently unachievable.

By fostering a less radical and more ideologically inclusive movement, realistic solutions could be legislated for and developed at a much faster rate. Combining social policy with technological innovation—for example, a temporary transition to nuclear fission power, increased funding for nuclear fusion and atmospheric CO₂ removal projects, and greater use of high-yield, high-efficiency GMO crops—would provide real, positive changes over the long term without requiring a worldwide economic shutdown.

  Smokestacks outside Beijing. China’s CO ₂  emissions have grown by +354% in the last 30 years.
Smokestacks outside Beijing. China’s CO ₂ emissions have grown by +354% in the last 30 years.

The geopolitical arena

Arguably the biggest challenge Extinction Rebellion faces is convincing some of the world’s most egregious polluters, which are predominantly developing countries with growing economies, such as China, Brazil, and India, to reduce their carbon footprints at the expense of their own prosperity.

Inexpensive, easily utilised fossil fuels have helped millions in some of the world’s poorest countries escape abject penury. Denying these people further improvements to their standard of living and quality of life will be a tough sell, especially if developed countries have benefited from those same fuels in the past.

Furthermore, in the immensely complex arena of international relations and geopolitics, rising superpowers like China will not sacrifice their wealth and influence to appease a faraway protest movement.

Climate activists in these countries will need to acknowledge that a one-size-fits-all approach to climate action, while perhaps ideal, is not practicable—it is utopian. Solutions must be tailored to suit the infrastructural and economic realities of individual nation states. 

In places where the political situation is difficult, statesmen and CEOs will need to be given the opportunity to be seen as the ‘hero’ or ‘protagonist for change’ in front of their own followers. That will sometimes mean working with these people, even letting them take the credit for change, rather than vilifying them.

Brand challenges

It’s not just protest groups like Extinction Rebellion that risk damaging their own movement with short-sighted action. Brands considering wading into the climate change debate with their own hot take, or even those putting together seemingly innocuous internal environmental policies, need to be careful not to alienate willing supporters.

Stakeholders, be they consumers, employees, or industry partners, want practical solutions to combat climate change. This willingness is an important resource that must be used carefully.

While sponsored runs for the Amazon and free office keep-cups are good veneer PR, global awareness has changed the game. Mere ‘commitments to change’, published today and forgotten tomorrow, aren’t good enough.

Brands must be prepared to build a long-term climate action strategy underpinned by viable, empirical solutions. This may involve large upfront expenditure, making bold public statements, collaborating with competitors, and full corporate transparency. To an increasingly conscious and discerning public, anything else is just hot air.

Declan is PR360’s Content and Editorial Manager. He helps clients say as much as possible in as few words as possible. He likes animated political discussions, medieval history, and heavy metal.

Join the Circle

Get 360’s intelligent communications updates, insights, and research delivered to your inbox every quarter.