Ten years ago, as world leaders headed to Copenhagen for the fifteenth annual United Nations Climate Change Conference, dignitaries hailed the event as the last chance to avert catastrophe.
“If we do not reach a deal at this time,” British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said, “let us be in no doubt: once the damage from unchecked emissions growth is done, no retrospective global agreement in some future period can undo that choice. By then it will be irretrievably too late.” The eminent economist Nicholas Stern echoed Brown’s predictions, calling the summit “the most important gathering since the Second World War, given what is at stake.”
Against this foreboding backdrop, hope was having its moment. U.S. President Barack Obama had taken office that year affirming America’s “responsibility to lead” on global climate action and pledging a $100 billion green jobs program over two years, in the vein of what some—borrowing a phrase from none other than free-market evangelist Thomas Friedman—were calling a Green New Deal. The UN got on board too: as climate writer Alexander C. Kaufman and others have highlighted, the UN Environment Programme published a report as early as 2009 calling for a “Global Green New Deal” that would see major investments in public transit, energy-efficient buildings, renewable energy, and land and water conservation, while drastically reducing fossil-fuel subsidies.
It didn’t take long for those hopes to be dashed. Once in Copenhagen, the United States tried and failed to strong-arm other countries into a deal on its terms. No binding agreement was reached. Friends of the Earth International called the conference an “abject failure,” and the decade since has borne out their diagnosis. Global CO2 emissions have gone up at least 15 percent. We’ve experienced eight out of the ten hottest years on record, as average global warming has passed the 1°C mark. Extreme weather events, from hurricanes to wildfires, have multiplied at a terrifying rate. Welcome to the post-hope era.
In that same decade, though, the extinguishing of one set of hopes gave birth to another. A slogan first heard on the sidelines of Copenhagen—“System change, not climate change”—spent the last ten years percolating as the climate justice movement slowly but steadily entered the mainstream. Today, the slogan is a rallying cry of the school strikes for climate that have seen millions of students walk out worldwide—the largest international climate protests to date.
Another slogan has become ubiquitous at the youth strikes, too, capturing the movement’s message even more succinctly: “No nature, no future.” This is the message carried by the movement’s sixteen-year-old icon, Greta Thunberg.
“You all come to us young people for hope. How dare you!” she admonished world leaders in September. “People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth.”
Thunberg’s message not only conveyed the rage of a generation robbed of its very conditions of survival; it was also a reminder that those conditions go beyond the climate itself. Human extinction may still be a distant prospect, but the disappearance of hundreds of thousands of other species is a very immediate one. Surveying the collapse in insect and mammal populations, increasing numbers of scientists warn that we are witnessing the largest extinction event since the age of the dinosaurs. In May, hundreds of top researchers around the world issued a fresh wakeup call under the auspices of the UN Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). They estimated that at least 1 million, or one in eight, species are at risk of extinction over the coming decades. More than 85 percent of global wetlands have been eliminated, removing not only vital carbon sinks and hubs of biodiversity but also critical barriers against flooding. Soil degradation has caused a decline in productivity across nearly a quarter of agricultural lands internationally; the disappearance of pollinators (including bees, birds, bats, butterflies, and other species) threatens further major losses to crops.
“Biodiversity and nature’s contributions to people are our common heritage and humanity’s most important life-supporting ‘safety net,’” said Argentine ecologist Sandra Díaz, who co-chaired the IPBES report. “But our safety net is stretched almost to breaking point.” The delicate ecological balance that has formed the basis for human civilization for the last 10,000 years is all but history.
With its stark figures and international media spotlight, the IPBES report did for biodiversity what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s “twelve years” report last October did for climate. Together with the Amazon fires last August and September, they painted an acute picture of the compounding environmental crises that could threaten humanity’s own extinction. But they also offered a vision of how we might still wriggle our way out. It would entail, in the words of the IPBES authors, nothing less than “steering away from the current limited paradigm of economic growth”—in short, a wholesale overhaul of the global economy.
The idea was not new. But for many who had long experienced the environmental crisis as little more than a pit of dread in their stomachs, it resonated in a new way. Some of them had already begun to gather under a new banner, hoisted by a group of relatively unknown British activists, with a catchy name and logo: Extinction Rebellion (XR for short). They promised disruption on a mass scale to match the emergency we face. They promised people a space to mourn our dying planet. They promised a break with a climate movement that had “miserably failed to actually fulfill its historical mission.” They promised, in other words, to transcend politics as we know it.
Yet politics has a stubborn way of catching up with those who disavow it. XR has proven no exception.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then it would be hard to imagine a more generous tribute to the environmental movement’s countercultural roots than the origin story of its latest branch. That story goes back to 2016, when British activist Gail Bradbrook traveled to Costa Rica seeking a “mystical,” transformative experience to draw her out of a personal and political impasse. While tripping on ayahuasca, peyote, and other powerful psychedelics, the longtime environmental campaigner prayed for the “codes for social change.”
Her prayer was answered when, upon returning to the UK, she met Roger Hallam, a fifty-three-year-old organic farmer turned social movement researcher at King’s College London. Hallam was doing a PhD on civil disobedience, immersed in the work of movement theorists like Gene Sharp and Erica Chenoweth, and he believed his research had led him to those elusive codes. They consisted largely of what Sharp had called “civil resistance”—mobilizing a dedicated minority of the population to undertake nonviolent civil disobedience and face mass arrests, in the tradition of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Chenoweth had even boiled the formula down to a number: 3.5 percent—in her estimate, the share of the population that needs to take to the streets to topple a regime.
Sharp’s From Dictatorship to Democracy, a “handbook for overthrowing autocrats,” as Mark Engler has described it in Dissent, already had a well-established track record. It circulated among organizers of the “color revolutions” that swept countries of the former Eastern Bloc in the early 2000s, Iran’s 2009 Green Movement, and the Arab Spring. It has led Russia, Iran, and Venezuela to label Sharp a CIA puppet, and critics on the left to dismiss him as a Cold Warrior. What Sharp really left behind, though, is not so much a politics as a manual of movement strategy and tactics—tools that could be put to a wide variety of ends. Hallam and Bradbrook decided it was time for the environmental movement to give those tools a try.
XR made a convincing initial case for the civil resistance playbook. Within six months of its “Declaration of Rebellion,” the group skyrocketed to international attention with a series of actions that turned central London into a giant protest carnival. The group parked a bright pink sailboat in the middle of Oxford Circus, emblazoned with the first of its three aphoristic demands: “Tell the truth.” Surrounded by activists, some of them locked and glued in, the boat blocked the intersection for five days before being hauled off by police. Altogether, 1,130 “rebels” were arrested over ten days of protest across London.
Along the way, XR won support from everyone from Labour leaders Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, and Diane Abbott to eco-radical turned apocalyptic mystic Paul Kingsnorth to self-described luxury communist Ash Sarkar. Moreover, it brought the UK Parliament to formally declare a climate emergency, conceding at least nominally to XR’s first demand. The first leg of the “rebellion” was a far cry from the millions-strong disruption the group’s founders say is necessary to bring about transformative change, but it was a promising start.
In October 2019, XR was back, and not just in London. Civil disobedience actions took place in major cities from Melbourne and Berlin to New York. In Paris, I spent an afternoon with a couple thousand rebels as they set up camp on the Pont au Change, a central bridge over the Seine. The group blocked off five intersections with hay bales, hammocks, and one of their signature sailboats, complete with a bumping sound system. The central square hosted general assemblies, tents, makeshift toilets, slack lines, a handful of planter boxes with vegetables growing in them. Brass and samba bands played; tourists snapped photos; an XR boat floated by on the Seine; and the police largely kept their distance. The scene had the exuberance of the early days of Occupy Wall Street (and, a few years later, Flood Wall Street), matched by a spirit of resolve among the most dedicated members of the group.
I spoke to two women in their early thirties whose arms were locked into roadblock devices made out of shipping containers and pipes, opposite a historic commercial court on Paris’s central Île de la Cité. Both said it was their first time taking part in collective action. They had long been worried about the environment and sought to live accordingly (eating vegan, for example) but had never felt drawn to any organization before XR. Justine, the younger of the two, said it was the Amazon fires that pushed her to join the group. According to XR’s spokespeople and other members of the group I’ve spoken to, this is the typical XR profile: people long concerned by climate and ecological breakdown but politically alienated and new to organizing. The group’s rapid growth is a testament to this, although XR also counts experienced activists among its ranks, especially among the most visible members.
Critics have pointed out that the group’s membership skews heavily white and middle class. For all XR’s ambitions of rupture, it in many ways resembles the earlier environmental movement that the climate justice push of the last decade sought to displace. Its pageantry in the name of dying species carries a shade of deep green. Its spokespeople talk not about workers and frontline communities but about securing a future for our children.
For XR, as for Thunberg, confronting climate change is above all a question of “listening to the science.” This in turn means moving “beyond politics” as we know it—an ambition with two main implications. The first is practical: XR demands the creation of citizens’ assemblies comprised of randomly selected people to “break the deadlock” on planning and enacting a post-carbon future. The second is more a question of vision: XR rejects traditional political cleavages and the institutions associated with them (including parties, unions, and other organizations), seeking to mobilize people along trans-partisan lines.
“The main issue is everyone’s gonna die in the next thirty years,” cofounder Roger Hallam told the podcast Politics Theory Other in May. For Hallam, this makes climate change a “moral,” not political, issue, and one that demands a “universalist” response. He argues that this is a question of practical necessity.
“Arguably, the identity politics of the last thirty years have been very good at furthering the rights of minorities . . . but it would be wrong to deny that it also has significant drawbacks, which is that it can’t appeal to everyone,” he said. “Obviously, people in the Global South are suffering a lot more, but people in the Global South aren’t going to be benefited by a strategy that basically is ineffective in actually converting the Global North.”
On this basis, XR’s figureheads also reject class politics and the trappings of the “radical left.” Among the group’s core principles is opposition to “blaming and shaming.” This is framed largely as a matter of internal culture, of avoiding public call-outs in favor of face-to-face dialogue. Its civil disobedience template, however, also reflects a reluctance to name enemies. Discrete actions have targeted institutions such as the London Stock Exchange and the UK’s Treasury, but the largest-scale actions have aimed more generally at disrupting business-as-usual in major city centers, in an attempt to provoke a government response.
Some actions have spectacularly misfired, most notably one at the tail end of October’s two-week rebellion. A small group of XR activists glued themselves to a London Tube carriage, blocking a train in a working-class part of East London at rush hour. Angry commuters eventually pulled the protesters off the train, kicking and punching at least one of them after dragging him to the ground.
XR organizers have since conceded that the Tube protest was a mistake and said that they are reconsidering their strategy in light of it, particularly given the “dismay” among some members over the choice of tactics. But it is far from the only source of contention within the group. Members of XR Scotland opened the October week of action by unfurling banners reading “Decolonise XR” and “Climate Struggle = Class Struggle.” Others have formed an independent offshoot of the group named Global Justice Rebellion, which explicitly identifies itself as anticapitalist and antiracist. XR’s U.S. organizers have added a fourth demand—for a just transition, including “reparations and remediation led by and for Black people, Indigenous people, people of color and poor communities”—to the group’s core three.
Members of Global Justice Rebellion are pushing XR’s leadership to adopt this fourth demand as part of their international platform. But it remains an uphill battle. XR’s leaders “don’t want to say anything ‘too left-wing’ because then they put off liberals and conservatives,” Cameron Joshi, a spokesperson for Global Justice Rebellion, told VICE. “They believe that’s the only way they’re going to reach the critical mass they need.”
In the UK, where December’s general election could mean the difference between vague gestures toward decarbonizing by 2050 and an aggressive plan to do so by 2030—which a majority of the public backs—the limits of XR’s apolitical stance are all the more palpable. The resistance among XR’s leadership to endorse Labour “shows a real blindness to actual power dynamics and how things get done,” says Aranyo Aarjan, another spokesperson for Global Justice Rebellion.
The most fraught issue facing the group—one that it has, no doubt intentionally, kept in the background—is migration. XR’s Declaration of Rebellion lists “mass migration” as one of the alarming future effects of ecological breakdown, and one prominent XR member (and longtime UK Green Party campaigner) Rupert Read has written of the need to “rein in immigration.” But it’s hard to say how widespread such sentiments are among the group’s adherents. After his 2014 article on the subject resurfaced this October, Read himself stressed in a speech that XR should “make very clear that climate refugees are welcome here.”
If nothing else, the controversy confirmed that there is no such thing as apolitical organizing, let alone an apolitical climate movement. As climate change slowly pushes the deniers into irrelevance and imposes itself as the twenty-first century’s most pressing issue, the fundamental battle lines will be over how to confront the crisis.
This has not been lost on the far right, some of whose European exponents are already using climate change to make a case for more militarized borders. “As climate impacts continue to ramp up,” Kate Aronoff has written on the Dissent website, “there’s no reason to believe an international focus on it will automatically lend itself either to progressive or even small-d democratic politics.”
Extinction Rebellion’s big-tent approach—which has required it to remain vague about the “how” of confronting climate change—has been an effective mobilizing strategy in the short term but offers few answers to the burning questions of twenty-first-century politics. The group’s second, extremely ambitious demand—that governments bring their economies to net-zero emissions by 2025—does less to answer the “how” question than to put a bullhorn to it.
XR has, however, put democratic politics at the center of its agenda. Citizens’ assemblies are no panacea, but they could be one important ingredient of a successful post-carbon democracy. In the interim, XR’s radically decentralized model, across a network spanning more than fifty countries, shows both the strength and the liabilities of its apolitical posture. “Listening to the science” can only paper over fundamental debates for so long.
It’s hard to predict at this stage whether XR, with its impressive track record and inevitable growing pains, will become a lasting force in the now thirty-year-old climate movement, or whether it will join the list of minor uprisings in recent years that have shaken the status quo in the rich countries of the Global North without managing to break its hold. For now, it’s clear that it has served as a useful jolt. XR has provided an entry point into collective action for thousands of people who previously felt disengaged; provoked a spike in public awareness and debate; and tipped the scales ever so slightly closer toward meaningful, decisive government action on climate change.
Young climate organizers I spoke to at the XR camp in Paris—from high-school-age members of Youth for Climate to a 350.org staffer—all voiced their enthusiasm. And while the UK Parliament’s declaration of climate emergency has so far remained largely symbolic, XR’s impact continues to reverberate in important, if less obvious, ways. On a recent episode of Novara Media’s #ACFM podcast, political theorist Jeremy Gilbert credited the movement with “spooking” previously hostile British trade unions into backing a hugely ambitious socialist Green New Deal resolution at the Labour Party conference in September. The resolution commits Labour to “work towards a path to net zero carbon emissions by 2030, guaranteeing an increase in good unionised jobs in the UK . . . the cost of which would be borne by the wealthiest not the majority.” The plan entails nationalizing energy companies and the UK’s “Big Six” utilities, among other bold planks. A spokesperson for Labour for a Green New Deal, the group that drafted the resolution and campaigned heavily for its adoption, agreed that XR and the youth climate strikes have played an important role in tipping public opinion—and some of the UK’s largest unions—in favor of radical climate action.
Writing in the Guardian ahead of the 2009 Copenhagen summit, Naomi Klein reflected on what the climate justice movement had learned in the decade since another historic summit: the World Trade Organization conference in Seattle in 1999, where labor unions and environmentalists (“Teamsters and turtles”), not to mention a sizable contingent of anarchists, famously joined forces to block international trade negotiations. “Copenhagen is not merely another Seattle,” Klein wrote. “It feels, instead, as though the progressive tectonic plates are shifting, creating a movement that builds on the strengths of an earlier era but also learns from its mistakes.”
Another decade later, much the same could be said. In the span of less than a year, the Green New Deal has rocketed into the mainstream. A movement launched by a fifteen-year-old has drawn millions into the streets. The climate movement today is moving in many directions all at once, eluding the grasp of the better-funded green groups that once steered it. It is unwieldy. It is chaotic. But it is hard to imagine a movement that wouldn’t be as it approaches a critical mass. This in turn implies its share of risks, messy debates, splits, realignments, and coalitions—in short, of politics.
Over the last decade, much of the climate movement has embraced this, and its vision of a just transition to a post-carbon world has only sharpened in the process. There are signs that Extinction Rebellion, after its blistering start, may be coming around as well. That would be a welcome step. As our planet grows ever hotter and more crowded, the stakes of politics only sharpen. The sooner we accept that, the better.
Colin Kinniburgh is a Paris-based journalist and an editor-at-large at Dissent.