Friday 18 October 2019 6:20 am

Extinction Rebellion are hurting the climate cause

Simon Gentry is managing partner (public affairs) at Newgate Communications.

The film of the two Extinction Rebellion protesters being pulled off the top of a Tube train in Canning Town on Thursday morning is the moment it all changed.

Suddenly, London mayor Sadiq Khan and Labour’s Diane Abbott seemed to be on the wrong side of the argument. In fact, Extinction Rebellion itself seemed on the wrong side of the argument. 

How did that happen?

There was something cathartic about the video clip that instantly went viral. It expressed the growing irritation – even anger – that Londoners are feeling towards a group which has aims that most people support, but whose tactics seem poorly thought-through and focused in the wrong places.

Most of us get the point that climate change is a real and serious threat, and most would also like to see faster progress towards a sustainable future. 

But stopping ordinary morning commuters getting to work on an electric train or forcing some cancer patients to walk to St Thomas’ to get treatment because Extinction Rebellion protesters had blocked the roads around the hospital is frankly immoral. 

On a lesser scale, but more ironically, blocking cyclists from riding home, as happened to me last week, may ensure that the climate issue is front of mind, but targets exactly the wrong people.

It also shows a worrying disregard for the political process. In our democracy, people could choose to vote for the Greens, a party that shares Extinction Rebellion’s aims completely. Recent polls show that the Green party is on about four per cent. 

Extinction Rebellion and the Greens are raising a problem which we all have at least some sympathy for. They are not, however, offering practical ways of solving it, and nor are they acknowledging the impressive progress that we in the UK are making in reducing carbon emissions.

In fact, Extinction Rebellion lacks any kind of clear, realistically achievable goal. To achieve the objectives that the group (vaguely) sets out means that the UK would have to immediately spend £1 trillion replacing almost every boiler and gas cooker in the country – or switch to raw food, unheated homes and cold showers.

As it happens, the UK is already decarbonising quickly, far faster than any other large economy. That progress is down to eco-entrepreneurs like wind and solar farm builders and engineers working on sustainability technology, and to companies that sell us products and services with a lower environmental impact. That is what has been making the real difference. 

And this is the point: change is being driven by the public demanding more sustainable products and services and by businesses meeting this demand, not by the antics of Extinction Rebellion jumping on a Tube carriage.

It seems pretty clear that Extinction Rebellion has now overplayed its hand. It may have been the counter-intuitive decision to disrupt the public transport network, or perhaps two weeks of continuous protest, sucking in huge numbers of police who would be better utilised fighting crime, was just too long. Maybe if it had just been a few days, the public would have put up with the inconvenience.

But whatever the tipping point, Extinction Rebellion activists have made a very good point very badly. They have done their cause a great disservice.  

Is the damage to the climate change movement terminal? Probably not. These protest groups emerge, shine brightly for a while, then fade to be replaced by another in a few years (anyone remember Reclaim the Streets?). Meanwhile, the cause lives on.

And as protesters continue to be arrested across London, companies old and new, large and small, are inventing, innovating and reformulating to reduce the environmental impact of their products, driven by a genuine and sincere public desire for a more sustainable way of living.

But Extinction Rebellion will in time become no more than a memory. It turns out that disrupting the lives of people who agree with you is never a winning strategy.

Main image credit: Getty

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