Extinction Rebellion protest

On June 11, the presidents and prime ministers of the seven largest developed economies plus India, South Korea, South Africa and Australia will meet in a hotel on the shores of Carbis Bay in Cornwall. Climate change and ‘supporting a green recovery’ will be high on their agenda. President Biden will be visiting Britain for the first time since his election, and his decision to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement. After years of failed attempts, an international agreement that makes a difference seems possible at COP26 later this year; but there are obstacles.  One in particular could scupper the whole process. That is where Extinction Rebellion (XR) is hoping to re-emerge from its self-imposed lockdown to strike at the right moment. If you have ever wondered when and how you might get involved in protest action to maximum effect, read on.

Unlike movements that flirt with conspiracy theories, XR has always sought to follow the science, which gave them a dilemma when COVID-19 swept across the globe. Few XR activists relished the prospect of following government orders, but the scientific rationale for the COVID restrictions was clear to the vast majority. During the lockdowns, XR confined itself to small-scale or online actions, and some local groups have slipped into abeyance. XR are hoping the G7 will spark a re-awakening. XR Southwest has put out a nationwide appeal to groups and supporters to come to Cornwall between June 10 and 13. A commercial campsite near St Ives has agreed to open an additional field to accommodate XR activists.

Many UK organisations involved in climate organising have been working towards COP26, postponed last year and re-scheduled for November in Glasgow; but the negotiations that determine the success or failure of those jamborees take place beforehand. Some of the toughest negotiations concern the tension between wealthy polluting countries and poorer countries that suffer the consequences. The Paris Agreement of 2015 included a commitment from the richer nations to pay $100 billion a year to developing countries, to help them adapt to the consequences and reduce their own emissions. An Oxfam report published last year revealed how developed countries have reneged on those commitments – and exaggerated their contributions in reporting to the UN. Most of the assistance has been in the form of loans instead of grants, increasing the debt of many vulnerable countries. There has been very little aid for adaptation. The total value of the aid delivered in 2017/18 was less than a quarter of the amount committed in that agreement.

XR is aiming to highlight that failure and its consequences during the G7 meeting. Melissa Carrington XR’s regional media coordinator explains:

These countries need help now. This is not some far-off problem. They need a major rescue package from this perfect storm of climate change and COVID-19. The G7 club of the rich are building their own lifeboats for a flood of their own making. That’s why we are calling this action ‘Drowning in Promises’.  The climate vulnerable nations have said that they need financial assistance to deal with the adverse consequences of climate change and that this is a make or break issue. If these promises aren’t kept they will walk away, and COP26 will collapse.

She is coy about the actions planned around the summit.  My local XR group sent me a link to a planning document, which they should not have revealed – even to supporters at this stage. As I explain in Roads Runways and Resistance, police and commercial spies have been infiltrating protest groups for over 30 years. For XR openness has been the best defence, with a few tactical exceptions.

“The details in that document haven’t all been agreed yet” Melissa explains, as I promise not to reveal them in this article.  I look down the list of planned actions and question the sense behind one of them: “Can you ask them to reconsider that one?”

“I think they’re already doing that” she replies.

Devon and Cornwall police have designated four ‘authorised’ protest sites, in towns and cities a long way from Carbis Bay.

“It’s not a protest if the leaders can’t see or hear it,” she says.

XR always maintains close contact with the police, but is making no promises to steer clear of Carbis Bay.

If you have never been involved with protest movements, you might wonder whether any of them make any difference. That’s one of the questions I review at the end of Roads Runways and Resistance. The short answer is simple enough: many of them have done. The long answer is more complicated. The path from actions to outcomes is strewn with unanticipated consequences; success is usually partial and rarely happens in the way people imagined at the time.

Part of the uncertainty comes from the other side – from governments and decision-makers. From the outside, people tend to think of governments as homogenous entities, full of dubious characters all pursuing similar interests. If that were true, then protest short of revolution would be a waste of time. The reality is more complex, as I discovered over three years of anonymous interviews. Governments of all parties are driven by shifting coalitions of interests and motivations. Protest movements cannot force governments to act, but they can tip the balance of power and perceived interests. XR and the school strikes did that over climate change in 2019.  Can we do it again, now the stakes have risen still higher?

I have written before about the influence of climate change deniers on government. That is not the whole story. A well-placed insider tells me that the people who are working on environmental issues in 10 Downing Street “get climate change”. Whether they are acting from conviction or perceived self-interest, they are determined to secure the most radical deal possible from COP26. Clearly, they are not the same people who are making the decisions on issues like road building and airport expansion. With the Sixth Carbon Budget now passing into law – including international aviation – that contradiction will ultimately end in the courts. In the meantime, our role as activists is to grab media attention, activate public opinion and shift the balance of perceived interest within governments.

If you have ever wondered when and how you might get involved in protest action to maximum effect, follow this link.

Steve Melia is a Senior Lecturer in Transport and Planning at the University of the West of England, and a ‘convicted climate protester’.  Roads, Runways and Resistance – from the Newbury Bypass to Extinction Rebellion is published by Pluto Press.

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Image credit: Julia Hawkins – Creative Commons