XR or Murdoch?

Rupert Murdoch, when chairman and chief executive officer of News Corporation, USA.

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Environmental NGOs criticising XR for taking on Murdoch have an opportunity to prove their efficacy - COP26.

Where is your plan to ensure that COP26 breaks the pattern of past failures?

The right-wing media’s condemnation of Extinction Rebellion’s recent actions against the Murdoch press was predictable, and predicted. 

The criticism of other environmentalists, like the CEO of the Wildlife Trusts, and the fence-sitting from Greenpeace was more surprising and disappointing.

But on reflection I believe they may point the way towards a mutual opportunity. 

Tactics

History provides many examples of radical protest movements opening political space for more respectable organisations to push in the same direction, whatever they said about each other in public.

XR has transformed the political context for those other organisations, who now need to prove that they are still relevant to the fight against climate breakdown.

The preparations for COP26 in Glasgow next year offer a once-only opportunity for British environmental organisations to do that.

My forthcoming study of transport protest movements since the 1990s found that direct action works by shifting public opinion, but that does not mean the public has to like the activists or their tactics. 

The anti-roads protestors of the 1990s attracted similar condemnation across the political spectrum, prompting many conventional environmental groups to say, in effect: we support your cause but we don’t agree with your tactics.

Expansion

Friends of the Earth enraged the radical activists, who accused them of betrayal, but both groups continued to push in the same direction.

This enabled Brian Mawhinney, who was the Conservative transport minister at that time to begin talking to those environmental organisations which “operated within the law” about the government’s transport policy.

Two years later the road building programme was reduced to just two schemes.

By the mid-2000s the groups opposing airport expansion had learned from this experience. 

While Plane Stupid grabbed the headlines and the condemnation more respectable groups, such as HACAN Clear Skies, worked with Conservative MPs who ultimately committed the Coalition government to oppose expansion of Heathrow airport. 

Evidence

Behind the scenes both groups quietly cooperated, whilst maintaining a public separation.

The stakes are higher in the fight against climate breakdown today. While politicians pay lip-service to decarbonisation global emissions continue to rise and Britain’s emissions are not falling fast enough. Time is running out.

In the language of political science XR has shifted the “Overton Window”, the range of acceptable views on climate breakdown, making previously radical ideas seem more reasonable – even if XR is perceived to be unreasonable.

The condemnation and threats of repression by Boris Johnson, the prime minister, are part of that process.  They are evidence of impact but they also make meaningful dialogue between the government and XR less likely in future.

This is where the more respectable environmental organisations could make a difference - although there has been little evidence of that since the Big Ask, which led to the Climate Change Act in 2008. 

Absence

The Climate Coalition, which formed during that campaign now includes over 140 environmental organisations, some of them with a mass membership.

They are well-placed to make effective demands on government, but their low profile and lack of progress were two of the reasons why XR drew members and headlines away from them two years ago.

If those organisations believe they are still relevant in the fight against climate breakdown, the preparations for COP26 offer their best opportunity to prove it.

A total of 190 of the 197 parties to the UN climate conferences have now signed the Paris Agreement, but neither that agreement nor any of its predecessors have stemmed the rise in global carbon emissions, which are now threatening the future of humanity.

This failure is partly due to COP's decision-making process. In the absence of formal rules of procedure decisions have always been taken by "consensus".

Industrial

That usually means unanimity based on minimal commitments, although past presidents have sometimes chosen to ignore one or two objections to widely-agreed resolutions.

Clearly any agreement on climate change signed by world leaders such as Bolsonaro, Orbàn, King Salman of Saudi Arabia, Scott Morrison and Donald Trump - if he is still in power - would be worthless.

Instead of seeking such a consensus the UK presidency could seek to build a coalition of nations willing to commit to the cuts required by the scientific advice of the IPCC.

They would need to include a majority of developed and developing countries.  The former would need to support the latter on the path to decarbonisation.

They could all agree to protect themselves against cost-cutting exports from other nations which continued to base their industrial output on the burning of fossil fuels.

Prove

This would probably require changes to the rules of the World Trade Organisation, another body which has historically made decisions on the basis of consensus, although its rules do allow for issues to be put to a vote. All of that is a long way outside the bounds of political possibility at the moment.

If Britain’s environmental organisations have understood any of this, they have yet to make a clear or convincing case. 

The Climate Coalition’s statement on COP26 is full of worthy sentiments influenced by the same consensual thinking which caused the problem in the first place.

So, here is my challenge to those environmental organisations which disagree with XR’s tactics, or are keeping quiet to avoid the flak: where is your plan to ensure that COP26 breaks the pattern of past failures?

If you believe you can achieve more through legal means, now is your chance to prove it.

This Author

Dr Steve Melia is a member of the XR Brain Trust and was previously a local activist for Friends of the Earth. He lectures in transport and planning at the University of the West of England. He was convicted for his part in XR’s actions last year.  His next book, Roads Runways and Resistance – from the Newbury Bypass to Extinction Rebellion, will be published by Pluto Press in January.

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