Extinction Rebellion needs clear demands and a strategy to target the real 'bad guys', writes Tim Root.
Although YouGov polling suggests most people oppose Extinction Rebellion, the movement and the school strikes have undeniably raised the profile of climate breakdown.
Michael Gove said “there’s more we need to do, to move away from fossil fuels” and called for “a serious conversation” on the topic. So this is a vital time for campaigns with established reputations to put forward demands which the government might well accept, at least in part.
Concrete proposals for Extinction Rebellion could include:
- Reinstating the zero carbon standard for new homes, one of the most cost-effective ways of reducing emissions
- Reinstating the fuel duty accelerator, so drivers would know that every year the cost per mile of driving would increase slightly.
Research shows that motorists drive quite a lot less as the price of fuel rises. For the first three years the fuel tax increase should be matched by tax credit increases, or income tax cuts, for low earners
- Cuts in public transport fares, and a scrappage scheme for high-emissions cars, conditional on any replacement vehicle being electric
- The very cost-effective investment to electrify and upgrade the least efficient parts of the rail network, which have caused tremendous inconvenience for commuters in recent years, and stand to lose the government many votes
- A large programme of investment in home insulation, cutting fuel poverty, and also providing good work opportunities, particularly for many of the three-quarters of a million under-25s not in education, employment or training.
Clearly such proposals are not the comprehensive climate plan we want. But if several were accepted, this would encourage many more people to support us – noticing that we could probably make further large advances.
We would be more likely to get these proposals accepted by showing that they could be funded in ways unlikely to rouse strong opposition.
One option is a land value tax, which has been supported by people from across the political spectrum, and already exists in about 30 nations. This would also help to release land for much–needed housing.
The government could also fund these measures by increasing tax on alcohol. Since 2010 the government has made several cuts to taxes on alcohol, despite the harm excessive use causes to health, and through crime.
These proposals could be branded the Climate Emergency Charter, or a similar striking name.
A viable strategy
Supporters of Extinction Rebellion need to consider its strategy carefully. The group states that:
“Our current system of governance is compromised by a focus on profits and economic growth. Politicians can be influenced by lobbies of powerful corporations.”
Despite this, XR aims “to persuade the government to take emergency action”. Yet it puts forward no reasons why the focus on profits and the influence of corporations would be outweighed by some road blocking and transport disruption.
XR needs to heed the words of its supporter George Monbiot, that the political class is “strategically incapable of addressing even short-term crises, let alone a vast existential predicament.”
In addition Extinction Rebellion needs to consider how it could persuade government to take on board its concerns. Our opponents could use similar tactics. The gilets jaunes emerged to oppose a rise in fuel tax.
The more that the media report Extinction Rebellion blocking bus routes, causing large police overtime expenses, diverting police from tackling ordinary crime, and causing business losses, the less government will listen to climate protesters. We need to keep public confidence so we can exert a positive influence.
Take one scenario: an ambulance caught in a traffic jam could arrive too late, with the patient dying as a result. XR would suffer a major loss of public support. Our opponents would then influence governments to pursue other priorities.
The book This is an Uprising, praised by Naomi Klein and many others, emphasises that campaign demands need to “resonate with the public and arouse broad-based sympathy.”
This involves emotionally powerful pictures and clear slogans, such as Clean Energy for a Safe Future, or Clean Air: Healthy Children.
By contrast Extinction Rebellion’s demands, for the government to “tell the truth” about climate change, and “reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025” lack the emotional power and clarity to inspire sufficient support, beyond the core of already committed supporters.
Make it specific
Taking account of governments’ failure over decades to prioritise climate breakdown, we must not put all our eggs in one basket.
The banks exert a massive influence on our climate. From 2016-18, the world’s biggest 33 banks provided nearly $2 trillion for fossil fuel companies. Banks’ public image was badly tarnished by the financial crash, and therefore it is easy to portray them as villains.
A mass campaign by the French Friends of the Earth got four huge banks all to make significant climate commitments. This included shaming Société Générale for its support for shale gas, deeming it inferior to its competitor BNP Paribas.
A bold global campaign backed by one or more well-known organisations could gain massive support, pushing many banks to cut their support for fossil fuels soon for fear of their reputation being trashed.
We will win sufficient prompt climate action only by boosting our public support. If we can be widely misrepresented as irresponsible and unrealistic, business and government will probably find excuses not to show the urgency required.
Tim Root is co-ordinator of Muswell Hill & Hornsey Friends of the Earth.