Extinction Rebellion

Extinction Rebellion has won the first battle – now it must win the war

Posted in Climate Majority, Extinction Rebellion on October 30th, 2019 by Leo – Comments Off on Extinction Rebellion has won the first battle – now it must win the war

Extinction Rebellion seems to have cracked using protests to transform public debate. But as it starts another major rebellion this week, it might find the challenge ahead is even greater.

Extinction Rebellion’s April protests were an enormous success. Together with the BBC’s Attenborough documentary and the school climate strikes, they created a surge in public concern about the environment. The climate emergency is now established in the top five most important issues facing the UK today, at around the same level as the economy. Since the April protests, the government has legislated for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and Labour is moving towards a much more ambitious target.

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My book, The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism (New Internationalist), shows why public opinion about climate change is important and what could overcome climate apathy.

Extinction Rebellion’s protests were an unprecedented success. Three questions about what comes next.

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock, Extinction Rebellion, Politics on April 28th, 2019 by Leo – 6 Comments

Past climate change protests have had little direct effect on public debate, but Extinction Rebellion protests in London seem to have directly influenced politics, the media and the public. Its success raises questions about the climate debate and what happens next with the protest movement.

Extinction Rebellion protest at Waterloo Bridge, London. Credit: Ali Johnson

I have some historical data to help understand Extinction Rebellion’s success: my master’s dissertation analysed the impact of public protests, along with extreme weather events and international climate conferences and reports, on public opinion, political debate and media coverage. I found that extreme weather sometimes influences public opinion, while UN climate conferences and IPCC reports often trigger media coverage and parliamentary debates. But climate protests generally have little direct effect on any of these. The full 2014 dissertation is here and a summary of the results is here.

Extinction Rebellion is different

But while climate protests have done less than other climate-related events to directly influence public debate, the Extinction Rebellion protests have been different.

My previous research looked at public protests from 2006-2014 and found no examples of them leading to debates in parliament. In contrast, every UN conference or report I looked at, and half of the extreme weather events, were mentioned in parliament. But the Extinction Rebellion protests led to two separate parliamentary debates – putting them alongside only 6 of the 26 climate-related events I studied to have been extensively debated.

I also found that climate protests rarely get much media coverage. Again this contrasts with UN conferences and reports, which get lots of coverage, while some extreme weather events are widely linked with climate change in the media. But again these protests were different. As Leo Hickman, editor of Carbon Brief has shown, the UK media has mentioned climate change more in April than it has at any other time in the last five years – including during the Paris climate conference.

Some of this coverage was also prompted by the BBC’s Attenborough documentary and Greta Thunberg’s visit to London, so we can’t say that the protests alone got more coverage than, say the Paris climate conference (I’m also not sure it’s fair to make a direct comparison over time as the volume of everything published each day by the UK media probably isn’t consistent). But they certainly got much more coverage than a climate protest normally does. While the graph above doesn’t look at what the coverage was, the tone has often been quite positive, with at least a large part of it engaging with the issues rather than just the disruption to London or the social background of the protesters.

My research found only one example of public concern about climate change directly increasing after a particular external event: major floods from December 2013 to February 2014 were followed by a spike in public worries.

We don’t yet know whether the protests – and the documentary and Thunberg’s visit – will influence public opinion, but it’s plausible. I can say this because there has been a rapid increase in the number of Google searches for climate change, taking it to the same level as it was at during the 2009 climate conference in Copenhagen – the previous high. That said we’re still at only about half the level of interest we were at during a peak in attention to climate change in 2007 (and, interestingly, we can see a shift from the public using the term global warming to preferring climate change, over this time).

The first solid evidence about the impact on public opinion may come from YouGov’s issues tracker, which is due in the next two weeks (government BEIS data on public opinion may come before then, but fieldwork predated the protests).

Three questions about Extinction Rebellion’s success

First, what made these protests so successful? I don’t believe the same protests would have been so effective a few years ago. One factor may be that the media is now more interested in covering climate change as a threat and talking about public alarm – rather than on focusing on supposed doubts and public climate denial, which was more common a few years ago. This might be partly because the climate denial movement has run its course in the UK, as Richard Black documents in his book on the subject. It’s probably also because of the success of the IPCC’s report on the 1.5C temperature target, the development of science linking particular extreme events with climate change, and other scientific publications about the threats from climate change. This suggests that a similar model of protest could also work in other countries, where the media debate is similarly advanced.

Second, will future UK Extinction Rebellion protests work so well next time? This wasn’t Extinction Rebellion’s first protest, but it was by far the most effective. They were helped by the timing, with a quieter news period as Brexit was briefly off the agenda. But unless Extinction Rebellion make their next protests seem like something other than a re-run of this one, future media coverage might be more limited and might focus more on the inconvenience than on climate change.

Finally, does any of this matter? Media coverage, parliamentary debates and public awareness of protests don’t make carbon emissions any lower. But I think it’s useful because of what it means for the coming debate about emission cuts. To meet their Paris targets, countries like the UK have to start cutting emissions in ways that most people will notice – with things like replacing gas boilers, changing what we eat and how we move about. That will only be possible with both political leadership and public support, as I set out in my book. The way Extinction Rebellion have shifted the debate  won’t be enough on its own, but it may help.

My book, The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism (New Internationalist), is now available.