London’s Extinction Rebellion Will Not Stop

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Measured by attention received, or noise made, London’s climate change protests have been a rousing success over the past week. As ever, there are doubts about whether the campaign of civil disobedience will make any real difference; but it does pose questions about the limits of democratic politics in the age of legislative gridlock.

With their banners, their graffiti, their drums, their street performers and their celebrity supporters, climate protesters marched, danced with police, delivered speeches and street performances, poured fake blood in front of Downing Street, got arrested, showed environmental catastrophe films, glued themselves to trains, disrupted traffic and generally made as much of a din as possible.

Extinction Rebellion, the group behind the protests, may be new but it has moved with the agility and single-mindedness of a hot tech startup. Its leaders spent years studying how to use mass movements to bring about radical change. They know their Gandhi, Martin Luther King and the Greenpeace playbook.

Their unique twist is blending the organizational ken and gravitas of the mass protest march with the hip vibe of the music festival. This is a shrewd strategy when you look at the increased politicization of Britain’s 20- and 30-somethings, evidenced by their hatred of Brexit and support for the Labour Party’s left-wing leader Jeremy Corbyn.

From their London headquarters, Extinction Rebellion volunteers are given training in what constitutes civil disobedience, as well as the legal consequences of property damage and various defenses. They learn the correct body position in which to be arrested, and practice their responses to angry and abusive onlookers (though Londoners have been pretty respectful).

Any comparison with other recent protest campaigns would show more differences than similarities. Extinction Rebellion rejects violence, unlike France’s Gilets Jaunes. Its acts are carefully planned and calibrated. The group even apologizes for damage to property and inconvenience to the public.

Unlike the Occupy Wall Street protests that followed the financial crisis, the London movement knows exactly what it wants and has effective messaging and leadership. It understands that anger gets old after a while, so the activism cleverly fuses outrage and disruption with more lighthearted stunts that grab attention, such as a giant pink boat fixed to the ground in London's busiest shopping street.

Sometimes the non-violence pledge gets a bit blurry. A group smashed revolving glass doors at Royal Dutch Shell. Extinction Rebellion justifies the occasional breakages by arguing that the Earth is like a burning house; you don't hesitate to knock down a few doors to save the inhabitants. “We do look like a bunch of trouble-makers and trouble-makers change the world,” Roger Hallam, a long-time activist and one of the group’s founders, told the BBC ahead of the protests.

The organization claims it is already winning hearts and minds; and judging from the press attention and reaction from many political quarters, they aren't wrong. A highlight came on Easter Sunday when 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, now an international superstar who had an audience with the Pope, addressed crowds, uniting the children’s protest movement of recent months with the adult one. The media loved it. Politicians clamored to acknowledge it – which is precisely the idea.

Detractors grumble that the group is merely blocking roads, impeding (low emission) public transport and hurting commerce – that this is middle class virtue signaling rather than a credible program. But perhaps it’s a sign of the growing fear of climate cataclysm that such complaints haven’t carried their usual weight.

It’s now up to Extinction Rebellion to prove it can do more than just protest. The get-to-know-us stage has been bold and attention-grabbing. What comes next is more difficult.

The ultimate aim is to get off the streets and use the political process to transform the environmental plan. The group has three broad demands: That the U.K. commit to zero carbon emissions by 2025, mandate a citizens’ assembly to advise on delivering climate targets and declare a state of climate emergency.

Britain has already promised to cut greenhouse emissions by 80 per cent from 1990 levels by 2050, one of the strongest legally mandated reductions anywhere. Emissions have been falling, down 43 percent by 2017, but overall, the U.K. has fallen behind schedule, having made the easy cuts early on.

Getting to zero emissions in double-quick time would, to have the faintest chance, require the entire country to be on a war footing and focused on little else. It would mean moving all heating and transport to clean energy and quickly phasing out reliance on fossil fuels, scrapping diesel and petrol vehicles and getting rid of gas boilers.

There would need to be a massive retrofitting of buildings all over the country to be energy efficient and a warp-speed scaling up of solar, wind and other renewable energy production. The group Zero Carbon Britain estimates it would require the building of 130,000 100-meter tall wind turbines, largely off-shore, covering an area twice the size of Wales.

All that is theoretically possible. Politically, it’s hard to see. Britain’s opposition Labour Party, which favors industrial planning, higher taxes and debt-funded spending, will be more sympathetic, but it would still have to rely on business investment and economic growth to help pay for it all. Mindful that younger voters have deserted them, many Conservatives are surprisingly positive about the protesters and their cause, but they dismiss the prescriptions as fantasy economics. They may agree to accelerate the fight on climate change, but argue that tanking the economy in the process would be counterproductive.

All of this echoes a debate in the U.S. that has centered on the rising Democrat star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), whose Green New Deal contains some similarly ambitious targets but has become a catchall for various traditional left-wing causes. Both Extinction Rebellion’s demands and AOC’s plan demand a scale of state industrial intervention that the Anglosphere hasn’t experienced in recent times. It would mean a dramatic redefinition of the role and purpose of government.

Frustrating as this might be to the protesters – who say politicians have failed to respond to the climate emergency – answers can only come through the nitty gritty of policy-making, the complex job of engineering tax incentives for renewables, regulatory changes, infrastructure planning and building projects. Unfortunately, this also requires a coherent government that can take decisions and pass legislation, something the Brexit-mired U.K. doesn’t have right now.

The risk with civil disobedience is, of course, that it makes protesters the arbiters of what’s just. A citizens’ assembly may indeed provide a contribution. But how would Extinction Rebellion respond if that body too failed to recommend drastic enough action? 

None of this is to downplay the importance of the protest. Even if it scores only a partial success, it would suggest that civil disobedience is a more attractive (maybe even more effective) strategy in a time of political dysfunction than traditional lawmaking channels. The Yellow Vests in France have a much less coherent message, and have been overtly violent, but the country’s president Emmanuel Macron caved in to many of their demands. 

This may all be a sign that democracy itself is becoming more volatile, less bound by the old rules and parties and more subject to the vagaries of mass movements. That’s a more troubling message.

It doesn’t suggest a happy ending either, given the polarization running through society in the U.S. and increasingly in the U.K. For all their fervor, the protests don't in themselves mitigate climate change. Ultimately, the hard work will still need to take place around a table.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

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