What is Extinction Rebellion? London climate protest explained - and what the XR campaign group wants

The ‘Impossible Rebellion’ is underway in London, and the group has plans to disrupt the capital for the next fortnight

Parts of London will be held at a standstill at various points over the next week or so, as climate campaigners from Extinction Rebellion target the city for a fortnight of protest.

What Extinction Rebellion describes as the “Impossible Rebellion” began on August 23, and will be the group’s largest protest since a similar two-week event in the capital in 2019.

But what is Extinction Rebellion, why are they protesting and what do they want?

What is Extinction Rebellion?

Extinction Rebellion is an international climate activism group which was set up in 2018 by a number of long-time environmentalists from the UK.

The group’s founders include Roger Hallam and Gail Bradbrook, two veterans of the climate movement who were previously involved with the Rising Up campaign group.

According to the group, they use “non-violent civil disobedience in an attempt to halt mass extinction and minimise the risk of social collapse”.

The group’s name is a reference to the idea that without drastic action, climate change and related issues will eventually lead to a mass extinction.

Extinction Rebellion was launched in the weeks after a group of 100 academics signed a letter in October 2018 calling for drastic action on climate change.

Since their launch, the group have become the most prominent global climate campaign movement in the world, through a series of high-profile, disruptive and often divisive demonstrations.

What are Extinction Rebellion doing in London?

The “Impossible Rebellion” being held across London by Extinction Rebellion activists is the group’s largest action since 2019.

Having started officially on Monday 23 August, activists kicked off the fortnight of protest by gaining access to the exterior of the Guildhall in the City of London, where police would later have to remove them using a crane.

Other actions will involve protesters gluing themselves to buildings or blocking roads and bridges.

Over the following two weeks, the group will hold a number of marches, demonstrations, acts of ‘civil disobedience’ and more across the capital.

Though the overall goal of the protests is to convince the government to “stop all fossil fuel investment immediately” there will be specific points of focus within the broader programme of activity.

For example, on Wednesday 25 August, there will be a demonstration outside the Brazilian Embassy in London which will coincide with other actions around the world, to show solidarity with the Indigenous Peoples of the Amazon Rainforest.

What protest tactics do Extinction Rebellion use?

The reason for Extinction Rebellion’s relative success and notoriety is due to the nature of their protests, which can often be highly disruptive, but tend to garner major media attention.

The movement is consciously non-violent, and takes inspiration from past organisations and struggles, such as Occupy, the suffragettes and the civil rights movement.

Their non-violent ethos also allows the group to appeal to a much wider group of people, including the elderly and children.

Despite their non-violence, Extinction Rebellion’s tactics are still extremely controversial as they are often so disruptive.

By using so-called direct action, the group chooses a more radical form or protest than simply marching, which they hope will exert more pressure on decision-makers, rather than purely attracting broad support.

Many Extinction Rebellion activists are completely willing to be arrested for their actions during protests, as has been the case for well over 1000 members of the group since 2018.

Extinction Rebellion protests have involved blocking roads with boats or other makeshift structures, using mass-gatherings to prevent traffic from moving across bridges, firing gallons of fake-blood at government departments and gluing people to the doors of buildings to prevent staff going in or out.

The group has also targeted media organisations which it claims are part of the problem, like when it organised for manure to be dumped outside the offices of the Daily Mail, resulting in six arrests.

Many people who are nonetheless broadly supportive of Extinction Rebellion’s cause have criticised some actions taken by the group, such as blocking certain public transport routes resulting in low-paid workers facing consequences at work for being late.

Because of the way the group is organised, with no formal command structure and smaller working groups within the overall organisation setting their own rules and organising their own protests, there have on occasion been disagreements within the group about some of the actions.

This was the case with a plan to shut down Heathrow airport by flying a drone in the exclusion zone in 2019.

What do Extinction Rebellion want?

While the group has some general ongoing demands and a specific focus for the current protest, their overall goal is to force governments and big business to take the threat of climate change seriously.

The group wants the most powerful people and organisations in the world to commit to radical action in order to avert the worst consequences of climate change, in a time-frame that recognises the urgency of the issue.

In practice this means a variety of different things, from stopping investment in fossil fuels, to transitioning toward other methods of organising national and global economies, and increasing democratic participation.

The group sums up its broad aims in three sections; Tell the Truth, Act Now and Go Beyond Politics.

While the first two demands relate directly to the climate crisis, urging the government to ‘tell the truth’ by declaring climate and ecological emergencies, and ‘acting now’ to halt biodiversity loss and reduce emissions to net zero by 2025 - much more rapidly than the target set in the Paris agreement of 2050.

The third strand of their demands calls for the government to set up Citizens’ Assemblies, open mass-participation debates and discussions, on climate justice which will inform government policy.

Some have criticised the group for not offering specific ways to achieve their demands, such as reaching net zero by 2025, while others would argue that their approach is too drastic and overstates the severity of the issue.

Extinction Rebellion’s supporters would argue that the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence points toward the current government targets on climate action not being close to enough to prevent catastrophic outcomes from climate change.

The group would also argue that while the scale of the issue is not in question, the methods used to tackle it should be decided upon by the people collectively, rather than imposed by a group of campaigners, thus the call for Citizen’s Assemblies.

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