Hundreds of arrests, the closure of Tower Bridge, breaking the glass windows of banks, and a big pink table surrounded by activists have been among the defining sights of Extinction Rebellion’s latest campaign of civil disobedience in London.
The two-week long “Impossible Rebellion”, has focused on London’s financial district – with XR saying the City of London finances 15 per cent of all global fossil fuel emissions.
The protests come just after the latest IPCC report from the UN, which warned that inaction up until this point means it is now “code red for humanity”, and just ahead of the Cop26 climate summit hosted by the UK in Glasgow.
With the summit looming, Boris Johnson has sought to portray the UK as an international “climate leader”, but his administration has also pursued major new coal mining and oil drilling opportunities, and is spending tens of billions of pounds on road building.
While Extinction Rebellion’s tactics have been met with criticism in some quarters, they have also won widespread endorsement, and like it or not, the movement has had a global impact.
The Independent gave readers the opportunity to ask questions directly to XR’s Clare Farrell.
Here’s what we learned:
Q: I look out and see how much we are all over consuming. I simply do not see us doing enough in time before we start triggering tipping points and ending up with runaway climate change. How do you stay positive when looking at the facts and where we are going?
A: Thanks for this question, it’s such an emotionally tough thing to stare in the face and talk about all the time. A famous scientist once said the first rule of humanity is don’t kill your kids! We are living in impossible times and I am often scared and upset by the news, especially seeing us experience the kinds of extremes in weather this year that nobody was expecting so soon.
When we launched XR the world bank had projected 140 million climate refugees by 2050. I recently saw a new estimate from a different paper that expects 1.2 billion by 2050! This is very scary and we must prepare ourselves to make a world wide humanitarian response that saves and protects life, creates food systems that can help us through destabilised weather systems and think carefully about how to make rapid mitigation a top priority along side adaptation measures.
We need regenerative systems in place asap, stop the harm and start the repair. I find the support of others in our movement and the sense of agency we have in taking action a great antidote to despair and there is growing evidence that taking collective action is great for your mental health. Stay strong out there.
Q: The majority of fossil fuels are burnt by America, China and India. How does closing London help?
A: The city of London would be the ninth largest emitter of carbon, were it a nation, due to its investments which have continued despite the Paris agreement.
All the big players have said they will decarbonise by at least 2050 but they are showing no clear plans or pathways to do this.
Direct action and non violent civil disobedience causes some disruption, as you know, but we have studied how social change happens (from history) and in this time where we need to see very urgent, bold leadership this is one way of helping to push the conversation forward and show the scale of public support for rapidly addressing the crisis.
Q: Has the current wave of civil disobedience action across London been a success from XR’s point of view? How does it compare to previous rebellions?
A: We have had a really interesting rebellion so far, combining our message about openness and welcoming everyone to the table to talk about how we should come together in times of crisis, to the new immediate demand we launched (facing the city of London) to immediately stop all new fossil fuel investments.
We believe that holding our rebellion in the late summer, and closely following the IPCC code red report will help improve the political weather around this issue and show that there are many thousands of UK citizens who are keen to see our government act in line with its international obligations and show crucial leadership at this moment where all eyes are on the UK government.
Q: Do you not think that acts of vandalism and disrupting the lives of citizens trying to make a living is counter productive? You come across as a bunch of loons.
A: The UK has a noble history of civil disobedience and nonviolent protest which helped to get ordinary men, and later women, the vote. Remember the mass non payment of the poll tax? The anti roadbuilding protests of the recent past which managed to get a major road building programme scrapped?
There are too many to mention here but we have looked at the most effective ways to raise awareness and create the conditions for social change and XR has been created with these inspirations in mind.
There has never been a greater threat to humanity, the gulf stream is weakening, we are seeing increased mass death events from extreme weather, and the latest IPCC report confirms unequivocally that the crisis is human made.
There is a legal question to be asked here, some people intentionally lied to the public about this and sought to confuse people to protect their corporations. I would love to know what the public thinks should be done about this seeing as it has created irreversible damage to our earth systems and sacrificed many peoples and territories in the process, mostly harming those who have contributed the least.
Q: I find it little odd that the co-founder of this group drives a diesel car. Why not have a petrol car which is less polluting? Whilst I believe climate change is here, and things need to be done, XR is going about this in the wrong way.
A: Yes she drives a small diesel, the least damaging way to own a car is to keep hold of the one you currently own for as long as possible and use it as little as possible. The best car for the environment is a bike and public transport. Switching to a cargo bike and public transport as swiftly as possible is what is necessary in this crisis, the government can and need to make this possible for virtually everyone in the next decade. There is much more to be done to make sure it is safe and accessible to the public.
Did you know that there is a long history or protest in many European countries with great cycling infrastructure such as Holland, where mass protest influenced the way they developed their cities?
Q: I’m a Councillor in London. There was an elderly Asian couple in my ward who were suffering from a gang of local youths banging on their doors and intimidating them. The local police were great in patrolling the area. But during last year’s XR protests all our police were pulled out. The local youth exploited this and life for the elderly couple became much worse again. How much thought does XR give to these consequences?
A: I’m so sorry to hear that – it sounds awful for the residents to have to live with. I would say that we are living in a country that has suffered a very long programme of austerity, there should not have to be an "either or" here, but a "both and".
The Tories have shut down 1,189 sure start centres (for young people), 675 libraries, 760 youth centres, 470 schools, and 600 Police stations. One interesting idea relating to our demand for deliberative democracy is participatory budgeting, which allows citizens to influence the public spending of their local government. It would be great to have citizens more involved in deciding how we respond to local issues and the wider climate and ecological emergency.
Q: These tactics are alienating the general public.
A: Did you know that one of our demands is to have citizens assemblies to help work with the public to come to the fairest and most effective policy suggestions? The situation is very complex and difficult to work out what to do to achieve the most impact with the most consideration of the impacts to people’s lives.
We think advocating for a political process which is fair, representative, and has the power to overcome political polarisation and social divides is something that can really help us find our way forward as the UK. Plus [it would] support the politicians so that they can show real leadership.