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Extinction Rebellion

by Marina Dolz-Pejenaute

In April 2019, Extinction Rebellion (XR) took the streets of London for 11 days, occupying five prominent locations around the city: Piccadilly Circus, the Parliament Square area, Oxford Circus, Marble Arch and Waterloo Bridge. As part of a global environmental movement that has branches in 56 countries, these non-violent demonstrations took the capital to a standstill and ignited  a more serious conversation on climate change and environmental crises around the country.

Extinction Rebellion defines themselves as “an international apolitical network” that aims to use “non-violent direct action to persuade governments to act justly on the climate and ecological emergency”. This emergency does not simply entail rising temperatures. Multiple scientific analysis exist that show evidence, among many others, of major biodiversity loss, sea-level rise, desertification, and water shortages around the globe. To survive this crisis, they say, “We must act now”. However, after the demonstrations in April, and the ones that followed after, in  October 2019, what achievements have there really been, apart -and not detracting- from awakening a substantial portion of the public and sparking debate? Who is being left behind and whose needs or concerns are being overlooked during these conversations? Contextually embedded in the current political scenario, both in the UK and internationally, are their demands politically possible? In this “life or death situation”, as XR identifies it,  shouldn’t the question be what is scientifically necessary rather than politically feasible?

Extinction Rebellion (UK) has three clear demands: 1) Tell the truth, 2) Act now, and 3) Go beyond politics. They aim to persuade and pressure the government to declare a climate and ecological emergency, not hiding from the public the seriousness and danger of the situation and the urgency for change. The government must also ‘act now’ to interrupt biodiversity loss and cut greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2025. Finally, a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice should be formed and should lead the government’s actions on the matter. As of May 2019, after XR, school climate strikes and other events, various institutions such as multiple universities, industries, and finally Parliament declared the current state of ‘climate and environmental emergency’. The government also legislated for net-zero greenhouse emissions by 2050. More recently, after the October protests, the UK government has introduced the Environmental Bill which they themselves claim “ground-breaking”. With this Bill and the establishment of the Office for Environmental Politics (OEP), legally-binding environmental improvement targets are to be set, assuring their enforcement and the possibility of holding public authorities accountable if they fail to meet such targets. In addition, as of November 6th 2019, 30,000 invitations to join a Citizens’ Assembly (which will consider what actions the public can take to reduce CO2 emissions) will be sent out to randomly picked households across the UK. With these actions, the government to some extent seems to have given in to the demands of Extinction Rebellion. Nonetheless, these changes ‘on paper’ might not be even close to sufficient, and criticisms coming from different sectors and powerful voices in the field have not taken long to emerge.

The UK government proudly claims that their new Environment Bill “will set a new trajectory for environmental improvement” and “will benefit society as a whole”. Regardless of how good these sounds, Greenpeace and others have identified a loophole. Since the deadline for setting of targets is 2022 and the implementation and achievement time is 15 years, the government will have almost two decades to meet these future legally-binding targets. We are looking at the year 2037 for the government to be held responsible, which is way past the 2025 demands of XR, having this movement and other organisations labelled the Bill timings as “unacceptable”. On top of that, the capacities and potential effectiveness of the OEP, which the government itself described as “our own independent watchdog with the teeth to hold government and other public bodies to account” has been questioned. According to a BBC report, this Office reports to court or fining of ministers or the government will only lead to funds being transferred from one part of the government to another. Not being completely independent from the government and not reporting to Parliament, this watchdog, as BBC suggests, might indeed be “toothless”. As of now, the UK is not on track to meet other previous environmental goals, such as the Paris Agreement’s goals,  so despite all these legislation and new measures, real change seems questionable. Boris Johnson will be long gone and the youths who participated in the past school strike will be in their thirties by the time this Environmental Bill allows for real accountability, which does not precisely match the definition of “urgent action”. All of this cannot but lead to the questioning of whether the government is merely playing with illusions of strong action to face the already declared climate and ecological emergency without any reassurance of success.

Regarding the Citizens’ Assembly, there have also been concerns coming from XR about this action being another “ticking the box” without any real repercussions. In their official website, Extinction Rebellion has recognized this as a first step, but has raised some serious concerns and calls it a “devastating missed opportunity”. First, the assembly will only be discussing how to reach the net-zero emission 2050 goal, 25 years later than XR demands necessary, but worries go well beyond the date. Despite the government reassuring that the assembly will consist of 110 members who will represent the demographics of the country, concerns over representation and participation are also raised. The members of the assembly will be chosen from those who answer to the invitation letter, meaning those individuals from backgrounds who are more disengaged from politics and do not actively participate in national politics might end up being underrepresented. It is undeniable the cruciality of finding solutions and implementing policies that have the support of the public, yet when talking about ‘the public’ it is important to consider whose interests are repeatedly being preferred and whose are being overlooked. Along these lines, critics of Extinction Rebellion and the environmental movement in the UK and other countries point out the lack of diversity among those involved in the protests and how white and middle-class the movement appears to be, alerting about the consequences this monopoly of the ‘climate and ecological emergency’ discourse might have. Under-representation of those who will be the most affected by the environmental crises and more likely to carry the burden of any potential change does not go along Extinction Rebellion’s call for – and the need of- climate and ecological justice. Finally, such Citizens’ Assembly will only have advisory power, but there is no guarantee the government will use their findings and recommendations towards actively creating accurate policies. Without any real decision-making power nor commitment from the government, these move towards meeting XR demands can also be described as “toothless”. In sum, without undermining this first step, attention should not be diverted from issues of representation, climate, and ecological injustice, and the (lack of) power of the Citizens’ Assembly to “tackle climate change”.

The publics’ concern about the now already declared “climate and ecological emergency” has escalated quickly over the last years. As the mass participation in Extinction Rebellion demonstrations during the past April and October prove, people want change and are willing to ‘fight’, in this case by engaging in non-violent civil disobedience, to pressure the government. There have been questions about how “politically possible” in our society the demands of groups such as XR might be, as they entail a radical change in our economies and our ways of living in general. However, as former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon warned, “this is an emergency and for emergency situations we need emergency action”. Question should not be what is possible from a political perspective, but what is scientifically necessary to survive the life or death situation humanity is facing and guarantee climate and ecological justice along the way. The recent attempts by the government to develop towards a “greener economy” that have been exposed throughout this article might be good “first steps”. Anything seems better than nothing, but the lack of urgency and loopholes identified in government’s planning and Environmental Bill, the flaws in the Citizens’ Assembly and how “toothless” all these measures become once studied in some depth are extremely concerning. As Extinction Rebellion explains, these measures and policies are not good enough and the results will not come fast enough. Facing this reality, Extinction Rebellion at a global scale keeps moving and pressuring governments all around the world. Despite criticisms, and acting as a catalyst, these “rebels” or “ecomaniacs”, as some media called them in April 2019, have a clear message for us: “See you on the streets.”


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