Consensus can be found on climate change, but not through Extinction Rebellion

Consensus can be found on climate change, but not through Extinction Rebellion

Catherine Neilan

15:17 22nd October 2020

Activism by its very nature is always going to be divisive, and of the handful of movements that have spread across the global in recent years, Extinction Rebellion has arguably attracted the most ire.

There has been a substantial shift in public opinion towards accepting the need to do something about climate change, with the majority of Brits now of the view that net-zero emissions should be achieved sooner than the government's 2050 target. But as with all issues, the environment is just another front on the culture war: Labour voters are more in favour of aggressive climate action than Conservatives, and likewise younger people compared to older.

Despite being just two years old, Extinction Rebellion has done much to raise awareness of the cause, often targeting Westminster and the UK's other parliaments in a bid to get politicians to act, as well as airports, London Fashion Week and the headquarters of oil giants.

But the activists are increasingly associated with annoying, dangerous protests that have pitted them against the people, rather than build sympathy for their position. Arguably the most damaging protest was that in Canning Town, where XR members tried to glue themselves to DLR trains, before being attacked by commuters desperate to get to work on time.

The protest was wrongly targeted: the DLR is one of the most energy efficient way to carry huge numbers of people across London, and Canning Town is a relatively deprived part of the city.

Earlier this year, XR blockaded the print works of several newspapers, including the one I work for. While their reasoning for this was more solid - attacking the right-leaning media monopoly, which has supported a certain degree of climate scepticism - the aim was not sufficiently communicated to the wider public. Instead, people were annoyed by not being able to get their usual paper and it created an opportunity for critics to accuse the activists of trying to silence the free press.

More recently, the group even went after national treasure and long-standing environmentalist David Attenborough, accusing him of "the erasure of the voices and sacrifices of front-line earth protectors around the world." because he was not sufficiently supportive of their cause.

The responses to all these actions shows that increasingly XR is winding people up rather than persuading them. While disruption might be one tactic to get politicians to pay attention and force change, much depends on public support for any change. Ultimately, particularly with our current government, decision makers will be led by whatever wins more votes.

Recently Extinction Rebellion UK issued a tweet declaring: "We are not a socialist movement. We do not trust any single ideology, we trust the people, chosen by sortition (like a jury service) to find the best future for all of us through a #CitizensAssembly."

I'm yet to be convinced that this group can be the medium for a citizens' assembly on climate change. However there is wider optimism of precisely that leading to positive change.

Just a few days after that XR statement, the first UK-wide citizens' assembly on climate change, which was commissioned by six House of Commons Select Committees, published a report on how the UK can reach its legally binding target of net zero emissions by 2050.

Climate Assembly UK is a model for how decisions can be taken by the people, when they are given time to truly look at the evidence and deliberate.

The report is the culmination of more than 6000 hours of Assembly sessions (just under 60 hours per member) across six weekends in 2020. A total of 47 speakers from academia, industry and policy - and David Attenborough himself - answered questions from assembly members, with live-streams, recordings and transcripts of their presentations available online .

The report, The Path to Net Zero, shows how a representative sample of the population believe the UK should meet its net zero emissions commitment with detailed recommendations across ten areas including: how we travel; what we eat and how we use the land; what we buy; heat and energy use in the home; how we generate our electricity; and greenhouse gas removals.

XR has done much to lead the country to this point, but with its radical demands and divisive actions it cannot be the consensus builder that we now need. That role will always fall to the people.

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Tags: Environment Protest Climate change Democracy Open dialogue