In April of 2019, Extinction Rebellion staged protests across the city of London that overhauled several landmarks, blocking off roads and entry points to Marble Arch, Oxford Circus and Waterloo bridge. Among the chants and placards emblazoned with slogans was a pink vessel carried across parliament square with the words “tell the truth” on its starboard side.
As Ed Miliband records in Go Big: 20 Bold solutions to Fix the World these public displays of disapproval were taking place just around the time of increasing scientific evidence about the pace at which the climate was warming. Combined together these factors led to an almost immediate response from the ruling class in Westminster and Holyrood.
Within two weeks of Extinction Rebellions’s protests, the UK, Welsh and Scottish parliaments all passed a motion declaring that there was a climate emergency (they “told the truth” as Miliband puts it, in line with one of their major demands). Following on from that the UK was the first G7 country to pass a net zero carbon emissions target into law, then enshrined in the Paris Climate agreement. Although Extinction Rebellion had originally called for the target to be met by 2025, the law was passed to meet the requirement by 2050. Another of their key demands had been partially met.
By June 2019 six select committees had commissioned the first ever citizens assembly on climate change in order to better appreciate the public’s growing concern and to understand how best to achieve their net zero target. This was third demand.
These protests alongside Greta Thurnberg’s visit to the cross party parliamentary climate change group in the U.K. coincided with a dramatic change in the public conscience. In the middle of 2019 YouGuv reported that concern about the climate had risen to record levels among the British public and that the issue will affect how a majority of voters would vote in upcoming elections.
Since June 2022 Extinction Rebellion has launched and promulgated its Project 3.5 campaign. Its purpose is no longer to educate people on the climate crisis but to encourage them to act with the hope of spurring politicians to fulfill commitments that they’ve already made but are failing to uphold.
This campaign was influenced both by the findings of the UN COP26 report that found that governments are not doing enough to meet net zero targets by 2050 and by the work of political scientist Erica Chenoweth who had shown that by mobilising just 3.5 per cent of the population (in the UK that’s around 2.35 million people) into active, sustained participation and non-violent struggle is enough to overthrow a government or to succeed in territorial liberation. Their goal is of course markedly different and is not intended to bring about a regime change in the U.K. but an end to investment and subsidies in fossil fuel companies, as well as licensing (or leasing) for oil and gas production, which are warming the climate.
It also accompanies a shift in tactics away from a focus on disruption and civil disobedience as its main vocation and towards community outreach. This grass roots campaign is intended to centre more on the local community, building connections and encouraging them to attend meetings and participate within the movement itself.
Originally it had intended to create the impression that making changes to the way we approach the climate crisis is easier than putting up with the disorder caused by Extinction Rebellion. These changes come as its method rather than its message have been centred in the spotlight and the movement is in danger of becoming attenuated and seen as disruptive rather than purposeful, particularly as it faces backlash across the media. Its acts of disobedience will now target institutions and businesses rather than the public at large.
The tactics of the movement may have altered but the message and the aim, that we’re not doing enough to tackle climate change and we need to do better have remained the same. As they eloquently put it “We refuse to bequeath a dying planet to future generations.”