You may love or hate their tactics, but one thing is for certain: no one can brush off Extinction Rebellion as the fringe movement it started off as just a year ago. XR is now active in some 72 countries, and if you live in London you may well have experienced their “civil disobedience” first hand. And while we hope no readers of our blog could dispute the worthiness of their cause, one key question remains: how much have the rebels achieved with their protests to date?
We spoke to some people on the inside, and the overwhelming feeling is that the government is insulting our intelligence by offering tokenistic gestures that don’t address the root of the problem. Simply put, they are “not walking the walk”, says XR member Clare.
So far, the government has acquiesced to just one of XR’s demands: declaring a state of Climate Emergency in May. This was followed by the zero-carbon pledge in June, which holds the UK accountable to bring all greenhouse emissions to net-zero by 2050. But this, all scientists agree, will come as too little, too late in a world that is already suffering the effects of global warming. Many local areas are pushing to become carbon neutral by 2030, but this still falls short of XR’s 2025 demand.
Earlier this month, the government also introduced an Environment Bill, which was unashamedly labeled as “ground-breaking”. But a good thorough look at this reveals major holes. Just one example is the fact that the new independent watchdog being set up, the Office for Environmental Protection, has no powers to fine the government if targets aren’t met.
And of course, let’s not forget the biggie: nowhere in this document does the government pledge to divest from fossil fuels or stop funding new oil exploration projects. In fact, a recent report found that UK Export Finance (UKEF) – a government body that underwrites loans and insurance to help British firms secure business abroad – has spent some £2.5bn financing global fossil fuel projects in the last five years. That’s around a quarter of our annual GDP every year.
All in all, the new bill is nothing but greenwash and is widely considered to be an election pitch by a government that is struggling to win favour with millennials. Of course, no one likes to bite the hand that feeds them. Except this particular hand is killing our planet!
But if this is all sounding too bleak, it’s not time to despair quite yet. Even if change is slow, the cries for help are being heard in the high places. The amount of police power the government has thrown at the recent XR protests – spending a whopping £37m on this so far and eventually banning all actions in London – suggests the powers that be are afraid. “The day that XR did action outside the banks was the day the police asked for greater powers,” says Clare.
And while the Tories may be nothing but a hindrance, there are other voices in Parliament. It will come as no surprise that the Green Party is fully behind the movement, with its co-leader Jonathan Bartley arrested after joining XR at a recent protest on Whitehall.
But Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has also voiced his support for the movement, comparing XR to the Suffragettes who campaigned for women’s right to vote, while also slamming Johnson for “doing little to meet” the zero-emissions target, with investment in clean energy actually falling for three years in a row. Admirable rhetoric, although most likely another election campaign.
Holding companies accountable
The real change, says Clare, is likely to happen at a company level. Amazon, for example, announced investments in three new renewables projects last week, with a goal to meet 80% of its power needs from renewables by 2024 and 100% by 2030.
At the same time, both companies and investors are having to face the music on their actions more than ever before. Just look at oil giant Exxon Mobil, which has been sued by the states of New York and Massachusetts for misleading investors and consumers for decades about the catastrophic effect of fossil fuels on climate change.
Meanwhile, in the UK, last week saw the launch of a new and improved Stewardship Code – a part of UK company law that holds big investors accountable for their investment decisions and forces them to engage with the companies they invest in.
The new code outlines more stringent standards on a wider range of investments, as well as expanding the scope from asset managers to other institutional investors such as insurance companies and pension funds.
The pressure is also growing on pension funds to divest from fossil fuels, and some are taking the lead. London Southwark Council Pension fund led the way in 2016 with a decision to divest, but others, including Lewisham, are moving in the same direction, thanks in part to pressure from XR. In short, the world is slowly waking up.
It’s hard to put a finger on exactly how much effect movements like XR have had on these changes. But according to George, one of XR’s internal coordinators for London’s Lewisham borough, the increased attention of the media has offered the rebels visibility and a potential platform for discussion.
This, of course, is always a double-edged sword: if you open yourself up to the public, there will be criticism. We saw this recently in the attack faced by XR spokesperson Rupert Read when he appeared on BBC’s Question Time. Predictably, the media has focused on the wrong aspects, and George says not enough attention has been paid to XR’s message – only the headline-grabbing arrests and disruptions.
“There is a false assumption that we are rebelling for the sake of rebellion. The reason we are doing this is not discussed,” he says.
But without civil disobedience, he believes the movement would have failed to draw attention to itself. We are in a crisis, and simply marching on the streets won’t cut it.
“The problem is people are too apathetic,” he says. “If you’re in a house on fire, your fire alarm goes off and you hope the fire department will turn up. We have sounded the alarm, but the problem is there is no fire department in place or even discussed.”
This is why XR are calling for the government to create a Citizens’ Assembly on climate change and ecological justice, so the people could hold the government accountable for its policies. Sadly, there is no indication that Johnson’s government is about to meet this particular demand.
With so much opposition, XR’s actions may not be enough to save the world on their own. But they take us one step further in the right direction and give us hope that we can dig ourselves out of this mess.