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Why disruptive climate protests are set to grow, both on the streets and in the workplace

November 28, 2021, 12:00 PM UTC

Extinction Rebellion has a warning for the powers that be: it is preparing to “return to its roots”. After the coming winter, one of the world’s loudest climate protest organizations will resume the mass civil disobedience campaigns that made it a household name in the U.K. and beyond. And it won’t be doing so alone.

Today, after a COVID-induced lull, it appears almost inevitable that a new and unusual era of direct action is about to begin—with big protests being met with big police action. It is likely that a lot of activists will go to prison. It is also clear that businesses will face pressure to become more climate-friendly—both from protesters and from their own employees.

“People are frustrated that the government has been so weak and will continue to be, as far as we can tell,” says Rupert Read, a philosophy professor at the University of East Anglia, and former Extinction Rebellion spokesperson. “They will, to a certain extent, be giving up on the political process and taking matters into their own hands.”

The big question is how much of the public will get on board with the new protest mood.

Back to the streets

Like many campaigning groups, Extinction Rebellion (XR) sees the recent COP26 global climate summit as a failure, with not enough concrete pledges made to stop global warming from radically changing our way of life. At the same time, the organization believes its 2019 protests were instrumental in leading the British Parliament to declare a climate emergency and make a groundbreaking net-zero commitment.

When the pandemic hit, it opted for smaller-scale stunts such as defacing the offices of JPMorgan Chase, Barclays and HSBC—and, on this Black Friday, blockading 15 British Amazon fulfillment centers. Now, hoping that social-distancing concerns will be a thing of the past—and that big protests will again move the needle—XR said Tuesday that it will hit the streets again in April.

But XR’s return to direct action comes as government too is hardening its line. British lawmakers are busy putting the finishing touches on a new policing bill that will, courtesy of the hardline Home Secretary Priti Patel, restrict protests that cause “serious unease, alarm or distress” to anyone in the vicinity. Under new provisions added by Patel this week, the bill also criminalizes the willful obstruction of highways, as well as people attaching themselves to other people, objects or the ground.

Patel’s crackdown is largely inspired by the actions of Insulate Britain, an offshoot of Extinction Rebellion that has outraged much of the British public with its tactics. The group, which has the rather prosaic goal of forcing the government to better insulate people’s homes, grabbed headlines a few months ago by blocking sections of the M25 road that encircles London, and by disrupting access to the Port of Dover, Europe’s busiest ferry port. Insulate Britain activists often glued themselves to the road, for maximum disruption.

‘Noble tradition’

Last week—just days after the U.K.-stewarded COP26 wrapped up—nine Insulate Britain activists were jailed for defying an injunction against their road-blocking protests. On Saturday of last week, hundreds more broke the injunction in protest at the months-long sentences, blocking Lambeth Bridge and Vauxhall Junction; 124 were arrested.

“In this next year, you could look at a lot of people being put away,” said Roman Paluch-Machnik, one of the nine, in an Extinction Rebellion webinar earlier this month, convened so previously and soon-to-be imprisoned climate activists could share their experiences and tips. Despite the public anger at Insulate Britain’s blockages—a YouGov poll last month put opposition at a massive 72%—Paluch-Machnik said “very public-facing civil disobedience” was a necessary part of climate action.

“Law-breaking for the sake of it,” added Extinction Rebellion co-founder Clare Farrell, is a “noble tradition” in the quest for justice. Angie Zelter, a veteran peace activist who was arrested at an XR protest in 2019, agreed that direct action is “part of the process”, but pointed out that it was one tool among many: “We need the lobbyists, we need the petitions, we need the marches.”

Hahrie Han, a professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, believes climate protests will grow as the urgency of the situation becomes more apparent. In the U.S., she says, leaders of the climate-change and racial-justice movements are discovering common ground, and may join forces. But in terms of the movements achieving actual power and change—Han’s specialty subject—protests are “only one piece of the puzzle.”

So, can climate activists annoy people and still get what they want? “Too often people put those things into a binary, either working inside or outside the system, either doing disruptive action and getting mass attention and working at margins of political feasibility, or working in the realm of political compromise,” Han said.

“Most effective groups reject that binary,” she said. “Anyone trying to make change has to have a multiplicity of tools in their toolbox. You also have to be able to negotiate with decision-makers. Most effective groups have the agility to move nimbly between different domains.”

Indeed, the climate movement uses many tactics these days. Earlier this month, Politico Europe reported on a semi-secret group called the Global Strategic Communications Council, which comprises around 100 communications professionals around the world who have for years been quietly feeding information to journalists without disclosing their backers—at least, until Politico started sniffing around (the group’s website now names supporters such as the IKEA Foundation). The network’s CEO, Tom Brookes, told the publication that fossil fuel companies’ secretive public-relations efforts had been an inspiration, though “we’re not using that playbook, because we’re telling the truth.”

Winning support

Extinction Rebellion is partly influenced by the work of Harvard public-policy professor Erica Chenoweth, whose “3.5% rule” holds that a successful nonviolent protest movement must carry that percentage of the population along with it. In the U.K., that means over two million people, and that’s how many XR hopes to scoop up.

“In 2022 we will be working to grow our numbers and developing designs for civil resistance campaigns, the first of which will take place in April 2022,” XR activist Nuala Gathercole Lam said in Tuesday’s statement. “Our mobilization program will continue to build numbers through the year.”

Rupert Read doesn’t believe Extinction Rebellion will achieve its 3.5% goal, however, and he knows the organization well—Read was arrested alongside Farrell last year for defacing the offices of the climate-skeptic lobbying group Global Warming Policy Foundation (they received the lightest possible sentences.)

“I’m skeptical that XR is going to get to 3.5% or anywhere near it,” Read said. “There’s no evidence of such growth in numbers.” However, he added, there is also “a huge appetite for real climate action now”—as evidence, the academic and activist points to a Ipsos MORI poll released this week, that showed people in the U.K. are more worried about climate change, pollution and the environment than they are about the pandemic and the impacts of Brexit.

“In light of the pretty pathetic outcome from COP26, and the desperately weak policies or plain counterproductive policies from the U.K. government, it’s likely we will see continued and increased levels of public discontent and of action of various kinds,” Read said.

What kinds? Read believes a bigger, more moderate movement than Extinction Rebellion or Insulate Britain is on its way, and much of it will manifest in workplaces, with employees trying to force their employers to go greener: “People are hungry for something to do that will make a difference; something that feels less full-on [than XR or Insulate Britain] and has a direct, positive impact.”

Businesses should be open to the climate demands of their workers, and of other stakeholders such as suppliers and customers, Read suggests: “To the extent that they’re not, they will face growing friction and resistance, and ultimately that could take the place of workplace stoppages. If our children can lead by going on strike, why can’t the rest of us?”

“Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg have opened the Overton window, and now it’s about others stepping into that space.”

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