The rise of direct climate action in the UK

Extinction Rebellion roadblock
Extinction Rebellion represents the emergence of large-scale direct action - but can it drive political change?


Extinction Rebellion coordinated a series of protests this autumn in London, causing widespread disruption.

The group occupied Southwark, Blackfriars, Waterloo, Westminster and Lambeth bridges earlier this month and shut down major roads and junctions with walking protests and sit-ins. Activists chained themselves to the entrance of the department for business, energy and industrial strategy (Beis).

The group, also known as XR, is coordinating what it calls “a non-violent uprising” of civil disobedience against the British government because of its failure to tackle the climate change crisis. It wants the government to change its “inconsistent policies” and introduce a legally binding commitment to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2025.

Political inconsistencies 

The inconsistency in UK policy is clear. The UK has traditionally been strong in clean energy and climate change; it set the world’s first CO2 emissions reduction target in 2008, is the world leader in offshore wind, and has set a date to stop using coal power stations.

But it has also halted onshore wind development, cut support for solar, failed to make energy efficiency a priority, and thrown its support firmly fracking – while still trying to reduce the country’s carbon emissions.

Large-scale protests and civil disobedience have been commonplace among anti-globalisation movements for several decades.

Protests against the IMF, World Bank and the G7 began in Europe in the late 1980s, with anti-globalisation movements growing though the 1990s and swelling protests – the 1999 anti-WTO protests in Seattle attracted 50,000 protestors and had 600 arrests.

Numerous global finance meetings were disrupted by protests in Europe and North America through the 2000s as part of the Occupy movement, culminating in the G20 protests in Toronto in 2010, which was the largest mass arrest in Canadian history with over 1,000 people detained.

Civil disobedience 

Climate change has been present under the umbrella of the broader theme of global justice at anti-globalisation protests, but not the main focal point or prompted the same scale of protests.

In the UK, there have been numerous small-scale, focused actions aimed at airport expansion plans or road widening. But until now there has been a lack of broader, climate change-focused civil disobedience movement.

In the UK an emergent climate movement coalesced in 2013 around fracking. The ‘Reclaim the Power’ camp was set up near fracking firm Cuadrilla’s oil well in Balcombe and attracted around 1,500 people across its the six-days. Over 100 were arrested in protests that followed when work began at Cuadrilla’s site.

Yet in the fracking debate, for many, climate change was not the primary issue. Opposition has often focused on localised and more environmentally-narrow issues such as groundwater pollution and seismic activity – and, for local residents, noise pollution and even house prices.  

The protest camp attracted mainstream groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, but also non-climate or environment campaigners such as people there on behalf of InfoWars, the alt-right anti-government US website.

General infrastructure 

While the climate change angle has since become more pertinent amid dire warnings about global temperature increase – with Greenpeace now listing it as the primary reason to oppose fracking – anti-fracking protests have mainly remained small and focused on drilling sights or outside companies associated with the industry.

In this context, Extinction Rebellion stands out for three principle reasons. Firstly, the group’s protest action has targeted key transport infrastructure and open spaces London that are not energy-related.

Climate protests in the UK have mainly been context-specific, aimed at fracking sights, fossil fuel power stations, or airports considered for expansion. In targeting more general infrastructure, XR have increased the disruption of their action while also gaining broader public and media exposure to their campaign.

Secondly, climate change is what drives the civil disobedience campaign of XR. Their specific aims of forcing government to address policy failure and setting a net zero target are broadly held positions by environmental groups and NGOs – as well as many politicians – but XR’s sole focus on climate change is what sets them apart.

Thirdly, XR also differs in that it is not from the mainstream of climate-related campaign organisations, such as Friends of the Earth or Greenpeace. In fact, in October XR occupied Greenpeace’s head office in London and asked them to “up their game” on climate change campaigning.

Mainstream politics 

A statement released during the occupation noted that XR activists have been inspired by Greenpeace, have fundraised for them, and have “marvelled at [Greenpeace’s] courage over many years”. But using positivity as a call to action “does not work when faced with ecological and societal collapse … business as usual is no longer an option.”

This could have consequences for the political effectiveness of XR’s campaign. The main UK political parties went through periods of policy ‘greening’ and translating long-standing British ideals on the natural environment into their mainstream politics.

Climate change remained outside of this until more recently, but has since become regarded as an issue that sits above party politics - evidenced by the overwhelming parliamentary support for the 2008 Climate Change Act. But it remains a sensitive issue for some elements of both the Labour and Conservative parties.

Traditional environmental campaign groups have been a key part of building this political consensus, but XR operate in a fundamentally different manner.

Their narrow but deep focus on climate change as a call to action separates them, as does their non-violent civil disobedience, but this technique may yet be problematic for building a positive message on climate change.

Public support

On balance, politicians and the general population might view short-term disruption as a price not worth paying to increase public awareness of climate action and to force government to change its policies.

Ultimately, XR do not believe that the existing process of bringing about change works – and their comparatively extreme measures are justified by the extremity of climate change and the threat it poses.

Whether this is enough to galvanise public support and bring about real change remains to be seen.

This Author

Joseph Dutton is a policy adviser for the global climate change think-tank E3G. All views are his own. He tweets at @JDuttonUK

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