What Extinction Rebellion needs to do next to win this fight

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.

Clear demands

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.

8 Responses to “What Extinction Rebellion needs to do next to win this fight”

  1. neilfromneath

    In response to your article..
    “Extinction Rebellion needs clear demands and a strategy” – XR demands are very clear:
    1. Institutions to tell the truth and declare a climate emergency;
    2. Government must act now by reducing greenhouse gas emission to net zero by 2025; and
    3. Create a citizen’s assembly to oversee the changes.
    I don’t know how they could be any clearer, to be honest!
    As for a strategy, the strategy, too, is very clear, and is based on research of rebellions and revolutions, successful ones and unsuccessful ones, i.e. successful rebellions are non-violent, disrupt economic output, consist of 3.5% of any given population, while continuing over a period of time via occupation of public spaces, e.g. not a one-off protest.
    The “Clear demands” you make in your article are contained within the planned citizen’s assembly. These are processes. Not proposals, nor demands. These are processes that lead us to a net zero society by 2025.
    As for your comments on “profits and economic growth”, road blocking and transport disruption caused a loss of £3 million per day in London’s West End over Easter. The reason for doing this is that most big multinational businesses, global corporations, etc., have a direct line to government. Once they start to lose money, they put pressure on the ruling elites to do something. Usually, the elites clamp down, police, violence on the streets, arrests, etc., but if a rebellion lasts over a long time, eventually, the pressure will be on the government to talk and relent to demands. This is how successful revolutions happen. And, usually, the police join forces with the rebels, too.
    All this is very clear, if you had took the time to do your research properly, and read articles and watched XR YouTube videos.
    So, in fact, you’re wrong. The more XR block bus routes, cause large police overtime expenses, divert police from tackling ordinary crime, and cause business losses, the more government will listen to us, if nothing else, out of sheer desperation and to stop those above groups from hounding them to do something.
    We’re not here to make friends. We’re not here to get the public on our side. We need 3.5% of the population to rebel with us. That’s the proven tipping point at which governments concede to demands.
    Moving on.. XR always lets emergency vehicles through roadblocks. No exceptions. No one died in London over 10 days of occupation.
    30,000 people joined XR last week and we’ve raised nearly £400k in two weeks. We’re not going to please everyone, but we have made climate change headline news. And we have increased support, massively.
    As for “emotional power and clarity”, we have the IPCC report on climate change issued last October to thank for helping us focus our minds, i.e. we have 12 years (now, 11 years) to act. This is what our demands are based upon; the demands themselves aren’t for public consumption; the demands are for those in power.
    As for campaigns against banks – see today’s news.
    XR isn’t a pressure group like FoE. Neither are we a protest group. Nor are we a political party like the Green Party. This is a rebellion. And we are its rebels. We do not pander to government, business, banks, the police, nor, even, the public. We aren’t trying to gain widespread public support. XR is a means to an end. A mathematical equation to create system change.

  2. Annabel Gregory

    And XR always let the police know exactly where they will be and when, so that emergency vehicles can be directed to other routes. There are other occasions when this is necessary, such as road works.

  3. Tim Root

    It is possible to push powerful decision makers to change climate policy in better ways that do not involve the risk of ambulances getting blocked, which could bring us disastrous negative publicity. As a TfL commissioned study shows, when something reduces the road capacity there is “increased traffic congestion in some locations, where similar volumes of vehicles are now vying for a reduced amount of space”: https://www.itpworld.net/news-and-views/2017/understanding-and-managing-congestion-in-london
    Coverage of XR in November stated that “The road-block protests have also caused problems for the emergency services, forcing ambulances to detour around paralysed streets”: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/meet-dr-demo-the-activist-behind-the-road-block-radicals-nzd6dsp5k
    We should bear in mind that tactics to pressurise decision makers can also be deployed by our opponents, as the black cab drivers did in November. Disruption is one factor in pushing decision makers to bend to our demands, but another vital factor is public support, so decision makers favour our demands over those of our opponents.

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