Extinction Rebellion: Who are they and why on earth are they rebelling?

Everything you need to know about the radical climate activists, their three key demands and what they've achieved

A pink boat is moored in the middle of the road at Oxford Circus. Trees are growing on Waterloo Bridge. Music plays from large speakers and people are chained to railings. There is dancing and singing, pop music and protest song. London traffic on Oxford Street, Marble Arch and Parliament Square is at a standstill.

This is the Extinction Rebellion (XR) protest in London. It’s the campaign’s second demonstration at the capital against inaction over climate change. If it weren’t for the army of police and frequent arrests, you might think a pop-up festival had been organised – albeit at major junctions across the city’s transport network.

The occupation lasted for 10 days in April, causing widespread disruption and resulted in over 1,000 arrests. In addition to occupying landmarks, activists glued themselves to various sites, including a DLR train in Canary Wharf, the entrance to the London Stock Exchange and the railings outside Jeremy Corbyn’s house.

Extinction Rebellion targeted London’s financial district in particular to highlight what they call businesses “role in our collective suicide.” Days before the protest ended, the Financial Times reported businesses were already claiming to have recorded £12m in losses in capital due to disruption.

At the time of writing, the climate protest remains one of the largest of its kind in the UK. Already, members of Extinction Rebellion have met with government officials, and momentum is gathering for further action. Extinction Rebellion has yet to announce the next phase of its campaign.

In the meantime, let’s have a look at the story so far...

Who is Extinction Rebellion?

Extinction Rebellion is a campaign that use direct action to confront climate change. Launched in October by activist Roger Hallam, biophysicist Dr Gail Bradbrook and ex-builder Simon Bramwell – along with other activists from the Rising Up! campaign group – the campaign describes itself as “an international apolitical network using non-violent direct action to persuade governments to act on the Climate and Ecological Emergency.”

Non-violent direct action is a peaceful form of resistance to government by non-cooperation, intervention or protest. Extinction Rebellion’s techniques lie outside of institutionalised behaviour and include civil disobedience, the refusal to obey certain laws and orders of government. The aim of non-violent direct action is to bring about social change through disruption and protest, without use or threat of injurious force.

Extinction Rebellion uses these techniques, of non-violent direct action and civil disobedience, in an attempt to radically mobilise society to combat climate change. Street blockades, workplace occupations and sit-ins – or so-called “die-ins” where activists lie on the ground in protest – like those demonstrated in London, are some of the ways the movement hopes to influence government to take action.

Mass participation and civil disobedience maximise the chance of social change in this context

Controversially, one of the aims of this grassroots movement is to get as many arrests as possible. "Mass participation and civil disobedience maximise the chance of social change in this context," Extinction Rebellion co-founder Roger Hallam told the BBC. His estimate, that they would need 1,000 arrests to maximise the chance of social change, turned out to be correct. Police numbers were stretched and struggled to contain the demonstration in April. Parliament would later pass a motion declaring a climate emergency.

The campaign itself is apolitical, which means it is not affiliated to party politics. It is also international in scope, and has inspired movements in Europe, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and the US, amongst others.

What are their demands?

b979b3fd00162194f10dfd657ff0c7a67c884ef6.jpgCredit: Wilderlost Media, XR Press
Extinction Rebellion has three key demands in the UK. Ultimately, the aim of the demands is to mobilise people and governments to enact radical change across different nations around the world.

The three key demands are:

  • Tell the truth
    Government must tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency, working with other institutions to communicate the urgency for change.
  • Act Now
    Government must act now to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025.
  • Beyond Politics
    Government must create and be led by the decisions of a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice.

What have they achieved?

On May 1, MPs voted to approve a motion declaring a climate emergency, making the UK the first country to do so. This fulfils the first of Extinction Rebellion’s demands to “Tell the truth” and communicate the urgency of the ecological crisis. The declaration comes as a compelling new UN report reveals that one million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction.

Prior to the declaration, Extinction Rebellion met with Environment Secretary Michael Gove following the protests in April. Gove admitted activists were “on the money” to call for a deeper level of public understanding regarding climate change but did not commit to a timescale to reduce carbon emissions or create a citizen’s assembly.

We have less than 12 years to limit global warming to a maximum of 1.5C

However, as Gove suggested, many consider reducing carbon emissions to net zero by 2025 an impossibly difficult challenge. Certainly, it would require drastic change to infrastructure and transport, which Extinction Rebellion acknowledges has only previously occurred on this scale during wartime.

To put into context the urgency of climate change, the UN’s 2018 report states that we have less than 12 years to limit global warming to a maximum of 1.5C, beyond which even half a degree will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people.

8f1fc2c3015505dc8e5f9fba44c75f7638b61710.JPGCredit: Vladimir Morozov, XR Press
Perhaps Extinction Rebellion’s greatest achievement so far has been its ability to change the language of climate change. Matthew Taylor, environment correspondent for the Guardian, pointed out that words like “extinction”, “rebellion”, “crisis” and “breakdown” are now part of everyday conversations when discussing the environmental threat.

While unprecedented progress has been made, particularly in bending the ear of politicians and getting them to take note, the question remains whether this really is the “tipping point” Taylor suggests it is.

The verdict

No doubt Extinction Rebellion will continue in its effort to tip the balance. So far, the campaign has been successful in capturing the media’s attention. It’s tactics of civil disobedience are effective, but it remains to be seen whether the pressure placed on Westminster will convert to long-term, meaningful change. Watch this space. This is far from over.

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Jack Solloway

Jack Solloway Voice team

A writer from the West Midlands living in London. His prose has appeared in Aesthetica Magazine, Review 31, The Times and TLS, among others.

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