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Extinction Rebellion needs to get political

Extinction Rebellion have achieved their first aim: attracting attention. Now it might be time get into the finer details.

One of XRs key rallying cries is ‘beyond politics.’ Whether the group’s eschewing of party politics was its plan from the beginning or something that germinated along with its growth is unclear, but the theory behind it makes sense.

XR placing themselves beyond the bounds of politics is, ironically, a political statement. They reject party allegiances because they believe that climate change is an issue too important to be embroiled in the red tape and petty infighting of traditional partisanship. The mantra urges politicians to look beyond the legislative complications of climate preservation to humanity’s future.

As a war cry it was initially fitting. Whilst climate change policy is complicated, establishing the need for it shouldn’t be. XR’s initial goal was to call attention to the big picture and establish climate change as not a political but a human issue that simply demanded the attention of politics.

And as far as this aim goes, they seem to have done a pretty good job. Their April protests were a resounding success. Together with the school climate strikes and the BBC’s harrowing Attenborough documentaries they created a surge in public concern regarding the environment. According to this government census, the climate crisis is now considered by UK citizens as one of their top five major concerns. For Gen Z and millennials, it’s top three.

It’s no coincidence that soon after XR started gaining widespread support from the British public, the UK government legislated a goal of net-zero greenhouse emissions by 2050, and Labour announced movement towards a much more ambitious target – net-zero by 2030.

Extinction Rebellion’s rise and influence have undoubtedly been extraordinary. They’ve galvanised people young and old and across party lines (beyond politics indeed) to devote themselves to disruptive and non-violent disobedience in service of one simple goal – making the public voice so loud that governments were forced to act. In fewer than 12 months, XR has become the fastest-growing environmental organisation in the world.

But, herein lies the rub. The way that politics works, ‘action’ doesn’t necessarily carry connotations of… well… action. Politicians and parties’ response to the effective pressure put on them by XR and other lobbyists was merely a promise of action.

Take the government’s net-zero law for example. It would just about make the UK compliant with the Paris agreement’s goal of avoiding catastrophic temperature rises – which is most definitely better than nothing.

Thing is, the government wasn’t even on course to meet its old, weaker carbon targets involving less cohesive operations such as ‘banning petrol cars by 2040’. Certainly, at time of writing we’re nowhere near meeting net-zero come 2050.

Moreover, whilst Corbyn’s notion at the recent Labour Party conference to meet net-zero by 2030 is, in theory, close to XR’s own demand, it’s pointless to give ecological credit to words. I could promise you a beach house if you cooked me lunch, doesn’t mean I’m going to cough up. In fact, until I show you that I have the means and the ability to buy you a beach house I wouldn’t advise entering into that trade at all.

Labour have yet to unveil an actual plan showing how they will reach this ambitious yet necessary climate goal. Doing so would necessarily mean throwing the middle finger to union funders and lobbyists that have previously supported labour by retracting plans to build a new runway at Heathrow, amongst other things. It’s something Labour should absolutely have the guts to execute, but they’re yet to prove that they do.

Unfortunately, the only way to confirm that governments mean what they say is to demand legislation that outlines a process of implementation. And that, my friends, is what I like to call politics.

This week has seen the new ‘bloc’ within XR take the stage – the environmental justice bloc (EJB). The plan for this particular crusade is far more ambitious than the last: disruptions have been organised in over 200 cities. Action can already be seen on the streets of London, as activists this week tried to paint the treasury red with fake blood wielding signs that read ‘stop funding climate death’.

The message is just as relevant as it was in April – the UK government and governments around the world are still letting oil lobbyists and big industry sidestep the corporate and social responsibilities outlined for them in the Paris agreement and are yet to implement green energy solutions that are ambitious enough to stop the world going tits up. The reason being that nobody has held them accountable to their promise to stop all this douchebaggery.

XR seem to be beating on the same awareness drum when really what we need is implementation. Due largely to the discursive place these activists have now taken the debate, the climate crisis can no longer be divorced from politics.

In April, the fact that so many citizens were supportive of a two-week blockade of central London showed just how deep climate concern runs in our society. So the natural question is whether a new round of the same sort of thing can have the same level of success now that XR seemed to have gotten what they initially wanted.

Ironically, the greatest threat to the movement as it stands today seems to be its apparent success over the past six months. If the public believes that the government establishing climate goals, which is merely the first step in a long process, means that XR have won, then continued street blockades could seem unnecessary and annoying to them.

Sad as it is to say, ‘raising awareness’ may have gone as far as it’s able to go for XR, at least when it comes to less ecologically aware social groups like Baby Boomers (certainly, there’s more scope for action in younger generations). Whilst the overwhelming majority of people want action on climate change, few pay attention to the details or punish politicians who don’t actively have a plan.

Therefore, politicians will likely see no incentive to go beyond the empty promises they’ve already made.

It’s possible, then, that XR’s next most useful step would be to increase political awareness in the citizenry despite their determination to remain aloof from the subject. The next wave of Extinction Rebellion protests will be a success only if they force politicians to actually show their hand, not just promise a winning set. We already know the ‘why’ of fixing the climate, and we’ve gotten politicians to agree with us on that. Now, it’s time to move onto the ‘how’.

Answering that question requires politicians to expose the fact that avoiding dangerous warming will be difficult, disruptive to existing policies, and expensive to their allies. It’s a more complex challenge than merely getting them to admit that the globe is getting hotter, and requires diving into the minutia of boring things like proposals and parliamentary bills.

It’s daunting, and not quite as sexy as covering yourself in fake blood. But then again, few people would have imagined that a climate change protest could occupy a CBD for so long and actually be championed by the public. So, if anyone can make your ordinary citizen pay attention to climate policy, maybe it’s these guys.