intelligencer chats

Is Annoying People the Right Way to Combat Climate Change?

Extinction Rebellion protesters in London. Photo: Ollie Millington/Getty Images

Ben: Today, a member of the nonviolent, intentionally disruptive environmental movement Extinction Rebellion was dragged down from the top of a London tube train, in a widely seen video. Is angering city dwellers (and many elected officials) a rational strategy for drawing attention to a threat that is not being taken nearly seriously enough by governments?

David: Probably from some perspective it’s rational, but it doesn’t strike me as especially effective — as most of XR has already acknowledged, essentially disavowing the action (which was taken by one part of the decentralized network, over some objections, apparently, from the other parts).

In general, attacks on the “powers that be” strike me as more appealing lines of attack than those that target the public defined more broadly. But then again XR’s been pushing the envelope on this question since they first began protesting, doing a lot more to really disrupt life in London than most protest movements tend to feel comfortable doing. And it’s been, I think, pretty effective. Rupert Read is one of the central XR spokespeople, and while he also criticized the Tube action, he’d just a few days ago described the general principle of disruptive protest this way: “It doesn’t matter if they like us personally, what matters is that they hear our message.”

Ben: By terming the protests “effective,” do you mean simply that they put climate change front and center in people’s minds more so than it would be otherwise?

David: Well, presumably you’d want to make people more sympathetic to your cause, too!

Ben: Oh yeah, that.

David: And this action very much failed on that front. Of course there’s also the sort of crossed-wire-ness of protesting climate change by stopping public transportation, which is, among other things, a “solution” to climate change (at least, something we’ll need more of).  But in general, I’ve been really struck at just how much XR has been able to accomplish over there by protesting in ways that strike me, on first blush, as recognizably fringe-y.
One question that raises is whether the general public — especially in the U.K., but also elsewhere — might be more receptive to more aggressive protest action on climate than most activists have previously believed. The Tube thing was a kind of practical test of that, and does seem really to have backfired. But more broadly I do think they’ve been able to open up considerably more protest space and energy than I would’ve guessed possible not that long ago.

Ben: For those of us not following this closely — what have they accomplished?

David: Well, the conservative British Parliament, in the midst of a Brexit crisis, declared a climate emergency and committed to zero carbon for the country by 2050. The Labour Party has come out in favor of a 2030 zero-carbon target — so aggressive I’m not even sure it’s possible. And just today, as Boris announced the deal he’d struck in Brussels,  he celebrated by saying Parliament could now get back to work — listing the environment as one of the four things they needed to tackle. That’s not all XR, of course. But their role has not been insignificant — in fact I’m not sure we would’ve seen any of it without them. And even in a very bottom-line kind of way, they’ve inspired many many thousands of Londoners to go pretty all-in on a very aggressive climate protest movement! That alone is pretty significant.

Ben: That seems like a smashing success in a short period of time.

David: Yeah, I mean, we’ll see whether that 2050 pledge gets met — considering basically no climate pledges ever made by any country ever have been fulfilled, it’s very much an open question. But it’s still a notable development, I think, to be setting those targets. This one is even, they say, “legally binding,” though I don’t think anyone really knows what that means.

Ben: Between this and the even more high-profile movement commandeered by Greta Thunberg, it feels like a watershed few months for climate protest. As the climate crisis worsens, do you expect the tactics employed by such movements to become a lot bolder? Not to be morbid, but I’m a bit surprised there hasn’t been widespread ecoterrorism yet.

David: Well, some people cite the Christchurch and El Paso shootings as forms of that — each cited ecological concerns in their manifestos, though I don’t think it’s really accurate to say either was predominantly focused on them. But I assume you’re asking about left-wing terrorism, and I do think that’s likely to pop up more as things get worse and people get more frustrated. Nevertheless, there’ll probably always be a bit of an ideological imbalance, since far-right responses to climate change do converge a little more quickly and naturally on nihilism. In general I think the political response to warming is going to be, primarily, just messy. We tend to assume the narrative is going to unfold in one direction, even if we’re not sure which: ecofascism or ecosocialism, for instance. But the more likely scenario is that the future will be like the world we live in now, with a whole lot of different responses coming from all different parts of the political spectrum, the heterodoxy unfortunately making it a lot harder to engineer any kind of global response, which is probably what we need.

Ben: As you’ve written, there’s a new urgency in the air now, spurred on by the apocalyptic U.N. report last year and the cascading climate disasters that have taken place just in the last year. To what extent does this new atmosphere, even if it hasn’t translated politically, change your thinking about the feasibility of taking on the issue?

David: I think it’s made a whole lot more possible! What is considered politically acceptable now, in a place like the U.S. but also across the world, is very different than anyone would’ve guessed a year ago.There does seem to be a meaningful constituency of people who really, really care about the issue. It’s far from a majority, but when you combine the intensity of some small percentage of the public (say, 5 percent) with the casual concern of the majority (on climate, about three-quarters of Americans say they are worried), that can be a recipe for real dramatic policy change, which is what’s necessary.

But public opinion is just the very first step. And when you look at what it takes to get major policy passed, and what logistical and capital obstacles there are to major infrastructure projects, and how little time we really have to radically cut our emissions to avoid global catastrophe, and how big a role China and India and the rest of the world will play in determining that future … It’s still very, very hard for me to imagine we find a way to stay below 2 degrees of warming, which the U.N. says would increase damages from storms and sea-level rise a hundredfold (among many, many other devastating impacts). So we’re going to be living in a world shaped and defined by climate change, even as it plays a more and more central role in our politics.

Is Annoying People the Right Way to Combat Climate Change?