As we wait for the Brexit impasse to be broken (or not), other things go on happening. Some may be even more important and many people would say that tackling global warming is one of them, indeed is far and away top of the list. That’s why thousands of people are planning to spend the next fortnight trying to shut down key sites in major cities around the world, including London, in order to pressure governments into dealing with the issue with much greater urgency. Are their actions justified, or do they go beyond the limits if legitimate protest? And are our laws adequate both to allow democratic protest and also to enable everyone else to get on with their lives?
Extinction Rebellion, or XR as it has become known, is a phenomenon. It is a protest movement that was founded only a year ago but is already a major global force. It describes itself as a ‘non-violent, civil disobedience activist movement’, outraged that not enough is being done to counter the threat that man-made global warming poses to the environment, to biodiversity, to the future of billions of people and indeed to the survival of the human species itself. We are destroying our own habitat through our own stupidity and have left it dangerously late to stop it. Far more urgent action needs to be taken than governments have yet countenanced and the way to force them do this is to make life so difficult for them that they have to. That is XR’s mission.
Its strategy is to ‘peacefully occupy the centres of power and shut them down’ until governments around the world agree to carry out its demands. These are firstly, to declare a ‘climate and ecological emergency’; second, to commit themselves to achieving zero net carbon emissions by 2025; and third, to set up citizens assemblies to oversee the changes necessary to bring this about.
The first campaign of disruption took place worldwide in April. Supporters of XR were invited to volunteer to be arrested and so be recruited to carry out acts of civil disobedience that were unlawful and would merit arrest. This created a conundrum for the Metropolitan Police in London who were anxious to allow protest on an issue about which may people feel keenly, and not to inflame feelings by taking too hard a line. But this led to criticism that the police were doing nothing to prevent major disruption to ordinary life in the capital. Businesses were suffering; it was reported that ambulances were blocked in the streets, and people unable to make important appointments, such as hospital visits: in short that the police were failing in their duty to allow life to go on. In the end the police took a harder line and started clearing road blockages, such as the big pink boat that blocked Oxford Circus. Over 1,100 people were arrested and their cases are now clogging up the courts. The Met estimated the cost of policing the April protests was £7.5m.
The second worldwide XR campaign started on Monday. In London it is expected to attract five times the support of the April protests and may well involve 30,000 protestors over the fortnight it is due to last. Four thousand XR supporters have volunteered to be arrested and by eight o’clock on Monday morning twenty-one already had been, as much of Westminster, including Westminster and Lambeth bridges, was blocked. The next fortnight is likely to see a major clogging up of the capital.
The protestors do not consist simply of the usual political activist groups of anarchists and extremists of the left and right. Many are retired, middle-class grandparents who have never sought to break the law before but feel they must do ‘something’ if the world they bequeath to their grandchildren is not to be uninhabitable. One such grandmother from Devon told the BBC she thought they had no option but to ‘clog up the system’ because ‘no one is taking any notice’.
But even some of those who share the alarm of the protestors at the continuing threat posed by global warming argue that it is simply not true to say that ‘no one is taking any notice’. Furthermore they add that even if it’s fair to say that not enough notice is being taken, the sort of action mounted by XR will not bring about the change in government policy XR advocates and may even be self-defeating if the public comes to resent the disruption more than it sympathises with XR’s aims.
Those who take this view point out that Britain and many other countries have been taking some action for decades, with the huge expansion of renewable energy as clear evidence of the fact. And Britain, along with other European countries, does have a target date for zero net emissions: 2050. Of course that is not as ambitious as XR’s target date of 2025, but that, they say, is because of the simple political constraints on any democratic government. The sort of policies that would have to be pursued in order to meet the earlier target date (policies, they point out, that XR does not articulate) would be too draconian to get past the voters and no democratic party would dare propose them. In short it is the public not governments which stands in the way of the radical policies necessary to reach the 2025 target.
The objection of many people to XR’s tactics is, then, not so much to its analysis that we won’t halt global warming unless we take more radical action; it’s to its belief that the sort of disruption it is causing could ever push governments into taking the sort of radical action that may well be necessary. And implicit acknowledgement of this would seem to come from within XR itself. One of its founders, Gail Bradbrook, has said: ‘We have left it so late that we have to step up in a semi-miraculous way to deal with the situation’. But, its critics would say, miracles, even semi-miracles, tend not to happen. So how can it be justified to disrupt the life of cities like London, to ‘clog up’ the police and judicial services, in pursuit of something that won’t happen, however desirable it might be?
To this, XR supporters would no doubt say: ‘We can but try’. But others are arguing that they need more effectively to be stopped.
Among these is Richard Walton, the former head of the Metropolitan Police’s counter-terrorism command. He argues that the current laws for dealing with such protests are ‘too weak’. In particular he argues that current law, largely based on common law precedent, is tailored to deal with the sort of protests which all democratic societies should allow but which are of a quite different order from the deliberately disruptive protests involving people ‘volunteering’ to be arrested mounted by XR. In his view we need ‘a sense of proportion’ in which the legitimate rights of people to protest must be balanced by the equally legitimate rights of people to go about their business and of government to do its job. Stronger laws are therefore needed to prevent such disruption in the first place.
The next two weeks are likely to prove testing in several ways not least in whether we have got the balance right between protest and the right of people to pursue their business undisrupted. What’s your view? Do you think what XR calls our ‘climate and ecological emergency’ justifies the intentionally disruptive campaign it is mounting or not? Do you think that that campaign can be effective in its own terms, by forcing governments to take more radical action on climate change, or not? And do you think the laws by which the police supervise such protests are ‘too weak’ or not; and if you think they are, how do you think they should be tightened up?
Let us know what you think.