The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report in 2018 stating that if we don’t keep global temperatures from rising above 1.5° C by reaching net-zero carbon emissions within the next 12 years, the majority of life on Earth may cease to exist. Climate change has become an issue that will likely define current generations.
Extinction Rebellion is a global climate activist organization whose members use nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience to protest government inaction on climate change. XR carried out its first action in London, England in 2018. Since then, XR chapters have popped up all over the globe, including in Canada. There are multiple provincial chapters across Canada as well as a federal chapter.
Provincial chapters lobby provincial governments, and the federal chapter lobbies Ottawa directly. To qualify, an aspiring XR chapter has to abide by 10 fundamental principles and three core demands created by its original chapter. These principles include mobilizing at least 3.5 per cent of the population to join in protest, avoiding “blaming and shaming” individuals, focusing on institutional criticisms, and dedication to nonviolence.
The group demands, for one, that governments be honest with the public about climate change, declare a climate emergency, and work with other institutions to promote awareness and change. On June 17, the Canadian House of Commons declared a climate emergency. But, members of XR feel the government should be as blunt and clear as possible. They want the government to point out that, if nothing is done, life on Earth as we know it could end, and humans, along with many other species, could become extinct.
The organization also stresses that governments must act now in order to get to net-zero emissions by 2025 and XR’s Quebec chapter now wants the government to establish an Emergency Measures Act to correspond with that declaration. XRQC outreach coordinator Louis Remirez said the group wants to see a policy similar to the War Measures Act. This, he said, would write addressing the climate crisis into law by using emergency powers to see that the entire economy begins to be decarbonized as quickly as possible.
“But the opposite is happening. Fossil fuel subsidies are still there, there is no supply-side policy for climate change right now, the carbon tax is minimal and being pushed back on extremely hard,” he said.
Provincially, despite roughly 300 municipal councils in Quebec having endorsed a “Declaration of a Climate Emergency,” the initiative has yet to be taken up by François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec government. XR’s third core demand suggests a level of distrust that climate activists hold towards the government—a significant aspect of the modern climate justice movement.
Specifically, they call for “citizens’ assemblies” conducted by non-partisan organizations under independent oversight. In this process, members are randomly selected from the public with quotas used to ensure that things like gender, age, ethnicity, education, and geography are all properly represented.
Members of the assembly spend time deliberating in small groups and then draft and vote on recommendations. This transparent and inclusive process, XR argues, will help the public hold the government accountable during the transition away from fossil fuels.
One of the founders of XR’s Quebec chapter Elza Kephart stated that the public must have direct supervision over any transitional process because “we can’t trust the government [to operate without citizen oversight] because they got us into this in the first place.”
“It’s sort of like jury duty,” said Kephart. “The simplest way to understand it for myself […] is that when you have something as serious as a trial for murder, you don’t have one person making a decision. You have 12 people who represent all facets of the population to examine the facts.” “If we can trust 12 strangers […] to judge a person’s guilt or innocence, then surely that’s the way we should be proceeding for the survival of humanity,” she continued.
The group says parliamentary democracy “has proved itself incapable of making the long-term policy decisions needed to effectively deal with the climate and ecological emergency.”
XR argues that politicians are unwilling to enact policies bold enough to deal with the crisis because of their obsession with “sympathetic media coverage” and the power of corporate lobbies. Chapters may add any principles or demands that they deem appropriate, so long as those don’t contradict any of the 10 original principles and demands. For example, the Quebec chapter added biodiversity as a new fundamental principle.
Similarly, the chapter in the United States added a “just transition” to their demand list, meaning that while moving away from fossil fuel consumption, they want to create new jobs to replace those lost.
International chapters benefit both directly and indirectly from XRUK’s success.
XRUK allocates 20 per cent of its donation revenue for an international funding network for chapters that show substantial amounts of enthusiasm, membership, and organization, said Kephart. In addition, the international chapters of XR benefit heavily from the name recognition established by XRUK, said Ramirez. Kephart reiterated that sentiment: “Wherever you see that symbol, you know there’s an XR somewhere else and that this is a force that’s across the globe.”
Robin Scott—who has been involved in environmental activism since the 1980s—is a retired British physician and member of Doctors for XR in the UK. What differentiates XR from older environmentalist groups, according to Scott, is its broader support base, its popularity among young people, and most importantly its focus on nonviolent civil disobedience.
“They’ve shown us that what we’ve been doing over the last 30 years hasn’t actually ‘cut the mustard,’” he explained. “This is a sustained grassroots broad-based movement, which I have not seen before [to the same degree] in environmentalism.”
For decades, environmentalist groups such as Greenpeace have been lobbying private corporations to make their business practices more environmentally friendly and putting pressure on governments to implement substantial environmental regulations.
Decades of effort have led to few gains. Modern climate activist groups like XR now focus on pressuring governments to adopt systemic change. That is where civil disobedience comes in. In 2018, XRUK occupied the UK headquarters of Greenpeace. Though acknowledging Greenpeace’s history of leadership in environmentalism, XR wanted to pressure them shift their focus to direct action.
“Greenpeace is an amazing organization,” said one XR protester, “but we’ve got 12 years, according to the IPCC Report, and what they’re doing won’t do it, so we need new strategies.” XR’s emphasis on nonviolent civil disobedience may represent an evolution in environmental activism.
If the government doesn’t take radical action as the climate crisis worsens, XR’s appeal among the public—or, at least the appeal of XR’s tactics—could broaden, they explained.
XRUK’s mass demonstration in April 2019 consisted of thousands of activists heavily disrupting five major cities across the United Kingdom and resulted in over 1000 arrests. XR’s Quebec chapter carried out its first act of nonviolent civil disobedience in front of Legault’s Montreal office on July 13, 2019. Twenty-five people were arrested.
Some have expressed deep concerns over XR’s operational methods. One study conducted by Policy Exchange, a think-tank in the UK, found that there were “extremist” elements within the XR movement.
The report claimed that “the leaders of Extinction Rebellion seek a more subversive agenda, one that that is rooted in the political extremism of anarchism, eco-socialism, and radical anti-capitalist environmentalism.” The report went on to say those who engage in “mass law-breaking” to further a political cause are essentially “condoning the breakdown of the rule of law.”
The language used in this study bears a striking resemblance to the rhetoric that many intelligence agencies have used to discredit and infiltrate left-wing organizations. Terms such as “subversive” and “radical anti-capitalist” condemning civil disobedience as the “breakdown of the rule of law” invokes the anti-communist and anti-civil rights rhetoric of the Cold War era.
This was especially true in the United States, where the Federal Bureau of Investigations engaged in their COINTELPRO program between 1956 and 1971—aimed at labelling civil rights and other activist groups as “radicals” and “subversives.” One of the men who conducted the study, Richard Walton, is a former member of London’s Metropolitan Police Counter Terrorism Command who retired from his post after being implicated in a spying scandal in the UK.
XR members stressed that the organization is completely nonviolent, and thus intelligence services would be wasting their time looking for threats within the group.
According to Kephart, there are protocols in place to preemptively identify whether members show any possibility of committing any violence, and those members are dealt with accordingly.
There are also actors within the climate justice movement who find XR’s methods to be problematic, though for different reasons.
Akira De Carlos, spokesperson for student climate activist group La planète s’invite à l’Université, voiced concerns about how engaging in civil disobedience could endanger marginalized and vulnerable people, and may even deter them from joining in on climate activism.
“Actions that could possibly get people arrested is not an inclusive way of protesting,” she said. “Arrests are dangerous for people of colour, specifically international students, and we want to get everyone involved in our movement.
She stressed that they have the same end goals, but that their tactics differ. “We definitely don’t discourage what they do,” she said. XRQC members feel that these criticisms are misplaced. Though she said that the comments were fair, Kephart pointed out that “XR is not just about being arrested.” There are many members of XR who cannot face arrest due to visa restrictions or home situations.
“When XR does an action, we have specific people who are willing to face arrest,” she continued. “It’s absolutely voluntary.” Ramirez emphasized that “if you’re someone who can’t [face arrest] because you worry that the police will treat you differently, there is still a place for you at XR.”
Timothy Ellis of Lead Now—a Canadian organization dedicated to promoting climate and other progressive policy initiatives—stated that XR’s tactics were emblematic of the type of “radical response” that those concerned about the climate crisis desire.
“At some point, it’s reasonable […] for people to say ‘this system is not working, so we’ve got to shut the system down.’ And I think that’s where they’re coming from,” he continued. “To me, civil disobedience is the last straw, and we’re at the last straw,” said Kephart. She emphasized that the only way for the movement to accomplish its goals is for people to join the cause. “We can’t pretend that it’s business as usual anymore,” she said.
When asked if she was hopeful for the future, Kephart replied that her hope was for humanity to “wake up and band together.” The coordinator for the Regenerative Culture Committee, who uses the pseudonym Blue Adler, fearing potential repercussions regarding her citizenship, also stressed the nonviolent nature of XR’s tactics.
“Since we do a lot of nonviolent direct action, I think there are a lot of people who perceive us as extremists. But it’s the opposite. People are willing to go to prison because it may be the only way [left to get action on the crisis].”