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After two weeks of mass civil disobedience, we look at what has changed

Extinction Rebellion protesters in Oxford Circus, London




Extinction Rebellion protesters in Oxford Circus, London.
Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images

Organisers of the climate protests that have seen peaceful mass civil disobedience across London over the past two weeks have said the first stage of the “rebellion” is drawing to a close. How much of an impact has it had, and how realistic are its goals?

What are Extinction Rebellion’s demands?

The group has three core demands:

1) Tell the truth
The government must tell the truth about the scale of the ecological crisis by declaring a climate emergency, “working with other groups and institutions to communicate the urgent need for change”.

2) Zero emissions by 2025
The UK must drastically cut its greenhouse gas emissions, hitting net zero by 2025.

3) Citizens’ assembly
The government must create a citizens’ assembly to hear evidence and devise policy to tackle the climate crisis.


Extinction Rebellion: a week of protest in three minutes – video

Are they realistic?

1) Tell the truth
The notion that politicians should tell the truth about what scientists, the UN and countless other experts say is an existential threat to human survival appears, on the face of it, to be a modest ask. But Extinction Rebellion (XR) point out that no political leaders in any country – certainly the current government in the UK – are being honest with the public about the scale or severity of the threat or what it will realistically take to address it. In this context, they argue, telling the truth is a radical act from which everything else will flow.

2) Zero emissions by 2025
Hitting zero carbon emissions by 2025 represents a huge, some say an almost impossible, challenge. It would require a complete overhaul of the way we are organised as a society in just six years – fundamentally changing everything from transport to domestic and industrial energy systems, food production to overall levels of consumption. The UK’s Committee on Climate Change has currently set the target of an 80% reduction by 2050. XR and its supporters say rather than being guided by what is deemed “politically possible”, policy must now be driven by what is scientifically necessary. And they point out that the chaos of failing to tackle the crisis will dwarf any disruption caused by acting now.

Extinction Rebellion protesters block the junction at Bank station.


Extinction Rebellion protesters block the junction at Bank station. Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images

3) Citizens’ assembly
A citizens’ assembly would, say advocates, help lend public legitimacy to what will need to be a radical overhaul of the economy and our society. It has been used successfully elsewhere – including in Ireland in 2016 on the issue of abortion – and could bypass the party political point-scoring in Westminster. Critics argue that the last thing the UK needs is a parallel government confusing an already chaotic democratic process that is struggling to deal with Brexit. Others, particularly on the Labour left, argue it is possible to meet the challenge through the existing political framework if radical enough policies are pursued.

Have these demands been met?

The short answer is no. But in each area progress is visible.

1) Telling the truth
Partly through pressure from XR, scores of councils and local authorities in the UK have declared a climate emergency in recent months – as has the Labour party. Increasing numbers of politicians – certainly on the opposition benches – acknowledge that this is the biggest challenge facing humanity. However, the Conservative government in the UK has repeatedly dragged its feet. This week, during an urgent question tabled by Labour, the energy minister Claire Perry rejected the idea of declaring a climate emergency, saying: “I don’t know what that would entail.” She said she had reservations about the Extinction Rebellion protests: “I worry that many of the messages we are hearing ignore the progress that is being made, and as such make people fearful for the future rather than hopeful.”

Diane Abbott addressing climate change protesters.


The shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, was one of several politicians to address the protesters. Photograph: Matt Dunham/AP

2) Zero emissions by 2025
The UK is nowhere near hitting zero emissions by 2045, never mind 2025. But the fact that this demand is now out there has changed the parameters of the debate. This week, confronted by XR protesters outside parliament, Labour’s Diane Abbott said MPs needed to come together to host a “broad conversation” about hitting net zero by 2025. “I think that things can change … on climate change and we can move towards the 2025 target,” she told them. Next week the Committee on Climate Change will announce its revised targets for the UK, including when the country should aim to reach net zero emissions.

3) Citizens’ assembly
There is no sign at the moment that the government intends to set up a citizens’ assembly to address the climate crisis. A few Labour MPs – including Stella Creasy and Jon Ashworth – have backed the idea but certainly for now, it has not gained any real traction in Westminster.

What next?

For many the peaceful mass protests of the last week have been transformational. Media coverage of the action has been widespread. The truth about the climate crisis – and the existential threat it poses to humanity – is, campaigners argue, now in the public domain and can no longer be ignored by those in power.

The language around climate change has also changed. Words like “extinction”, “rebellion”, “crisis” and “breakdown” are now part of everyday conversations when discussing the environmental threat. But perhaps most importantly what is deemed “politically realistic” has changed. In the eyes of many seasoned observers, the past two weeks represent a “tipping point”, with the Extinction Rebellion protests coinciding with more school strikes for the climate, the BBC’s David Attenborough documentary, and Mark Carney telling bankers they can no longer ignore the threat. The question now is whether politicians are prepared to rise to the challenge.

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