‘Extinction Rebellion’ And Climate Change: Is Civil Disobedience The Way Forward?

On April 15th, the climate protest group Extinction Rebellion launched their ‘International Rebellion’ campaign. The group, formed in 2018, aims to “minimise the risk of human extinction and ecological collapse” through “non-violent civil disobedience”. The ongoing campaign has seen them cause significant disruption in central London, temporarily shutting down key locations across the city, including Oxford Circus, Waterloo Bridge and Parliament Square. Following this initial success, they now plan to move onto the “second stage” of their rebellion, focused on “negotiations” with politicians and the police.

Protestors and supporters of the group have emphasised the urgency of the climate situation, and their belief that there is little option left for them other than civil disobedience. “What else is there? Write a letter to my MP, join Greenpeace – none of it seems to make much difference, so I feel there is no option but to take a stand,” argues one protestor, speaking to the Guardian.

The Metropolitan Police feels differently. The campaign’s first week saw over 800 arrests, and Commissioner Cressida Dick says it has caused “miserable disruption”. Public transport in particular was severely affected, with “55 bus routes closed, and 500,000 people affected as a result”, claims Supt Colin Wingrove.

Yet for Extinction Rebellion, this kind of disruption is exactly the point. Dr Gail Bradbrook, a co-founder of the group, argues that it is the status-quo that is in fact causing “huge disruption”, and that civil disobedience is needed to make people “pause and reflect”.

This is not an argument without merit. We need only look at the severity of the current climate situation to find justification for extreme action. Indeed, world leaders seem to recognise this fact- at least in their rhetoric. As former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon succinctly put it, “this in an emergency situation, and for emergency situations we need emergency action”. His successor Antonio Guterres has echoed this, naming climate change “a direct existential threat” and calling on the world to “act now to save our planet”.

Yet governments have thus far failed to heed this message- a 2018 policy brief from the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment revealed only 16 of 197 countries are on track to meet the pledges they set out in the Paris Agreement.

It is little wonder then that groups such as Extinction Rebellion feel justified in undertaking non-violent civil disobedience. If governments have failed to listen to lawful protest, scientific consensus, and even choose to ignore their own climate pledges, then they must be made to act. Civil disobedience may be one useful tool in making them do so.

It is too notable that, contrary to the beliefs of critics, the demands made by groups such as Extinction Rebellion are feasible; as the Centre for Alternative Technology’s Zero Carbon Britain project demonstrates, we already possess the technology to reach net-zero emissions. And we can do it quickly. Andrew Simms from the Rapid Transition Alliance, which promotes urgent solutions to climate change, draws comparison to the response to the 2008 global financial crisis: “if we treated the wellbeing of the biosphere with the same integrity and seriousness with which we treated the integrity of the banking system, you would rapidly see the alignment of resources and planning that would achieve these kind of goals.”

The only obstacle then, appears to be political will. Extinction Rebellion want to use civil disobedience as a tool to generate this will, and to force governments and world leaders to close the gap between their rhetoric and their action. Their success in doing so will depend greatly on their persistence and on governments’ willingness to listen. On the first point they seem to be doing well: 50,000 new members have joined since the 15th of April and key sites in London were successfully held for days on end. Whether leaders are willing to listen, however, is another question entirely.