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What impact has Extinction Rebellion actually had?


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Climate change has featured heavily across media outlets in recent months.

David Attenborough presented an emergency climate change documentary and Greta Thunberg visited the Houses of Parliament after her solo school protest gained traction globally.


Extinction Rebellion protest, November 2018. Image credit: Teuta Hoxha

An estimated 1.4 million school children across the world have taken part in school strikes for climate change. 

In the UK, Extinction Rebellion staged high profile protests across the country, encouraging acts of disruption; including chalking the roads with their hourglass logo in an attempt to get parliament's attention. Its members also disrupted a House of Commons Brexit debate whilst semi-naked

Image credit: Teuta Hoxha

In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a damning report, warning readers they have 11 years before global temperatures rise by the predicted 1.5 degrees – a point at which devastation and natural disasters will have a significant and fatal impact on human life. 

According to the report, global warming is 'likely to reach 1.5 degrees [pre-industrial levels] between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate.' 

Extinction Rebellion mobilised their campaign on the IPCC's warnings, saying the human race is in the 'midst of mass extinction.' 

"We are unprepared for the danger our future holds. We face floods, wildfires, extreme weather, crop failure, mass displacement and the breakdown of society," Extinction Rebellion states in its information about climate change. "The time for denial is over. It is time to act."

Since the IPCC publication further stories have surfaced, including a study confirming that half of the coral in the Great Barrier Reef has died. Sea levels are also predicted to rise at a twice as far as previously expected.

Extinction Rebellions' manifesto points are categorised by three demands.

Firstly, they want the government to ‘tell the truth’ about climate change. The UK must set targets to reach net-zero emissions and create a citizens' assembly to lead governmental decisions on climate and ecological justice.

The proposed method of achieving this is civil disobedience – mainly in the form of road-blocks and traffic obstruction, as conventional approaches 'of voting, lobbying, petition and protest have failed.'

The group states that civil disobedience and rebellion is 'necessary' and that they "are asking people to find their courage and to collectively do what is necessary to bring about change."

Most recently, Extinction Rebellion staged a two-week roadblock in Central London. One of the main aims of these protests was to cause significant disruption and bring the capital to a standstill. 

The group stated that "We don’t want or need everyone to get arrested – for some this is not a good idea. But we do want everyone involved to support civil disobedience as a tool.

"Historical evidence shows that we need the involvement of 3.5% of the population to succeed – in the UK that’s about 2 million people."

Over 1,000 arrests were made within the first eight days of disruptions, with 69 people charged in connection with Extinction Rebellion protests.

After the road-blocks came to an end in April, the question remained as to whether the disruptions had any impact on the UK’s policy and actions regarding climate change. 

On May 1st the UK declared a ‘climate emergency’, following a motion tabled by Labour.

The announcement followed similar declarations by Scotland and Wales a few days prior.

Whilst the motion does not 'legally compel the government to act', the exposure may encourage the government to divert more funding and resources towards climate management. 

Debate and discussion around climate change have increased exponentially since the shutdown by Extinction Rebellion, with prominent figures including Greta Thunberg speaking at their event.

Members of the group later met with the Secretary of State for Environment, Michael Gove.

Before the major disruptions in April, only a handful of MPs attended a parliamentary debate discussing the climate change school strikes. The movement has undoubtedly increased public awareness, with reports suggesting a huge surge in 'climate change web traffic.' 

In response to the climate change emergency, Extinction Rebellion states that the government is start[ing] to tell the truth’ regarding climate change and some consider their first demand met by the UK government.

In the aftermath, The Guardian published an updated style guide stating that the news site was moving away from passive terms, favouring 'climate crisis' over 'climate change'. 

Other replacements include the term 'global heating' over 'global warming'.

The climate change emergency outlines a new target for emission reductions – the aim is to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. The current target is to gain an 80% reduction in 1990 emissions by 2050.

Extinction Rebellion believes the target it is ‘reckless,' adding that ‘2050 condemns us to a bleak future. We may as well not have a target at all. Others are already dying around the world thanks to inaction and far-off target setting.’

The proposed target for carbon-neutrality will be achieved 25 years later than Extinction Rebellions' demands.

In comparison to the IPCC report, this new target leaves us reaching carbon-neutrality 20 years after the UN's predictions. 

However, the UK is projected to fall drastically short of the existing climate change targets.

When considering all of these facts together, it’s difficult not to wonder whether these targets are sincerely proposed or are merely paying lip-service to an issue at the forefront of the current public consciousness.

Despite knowing the full IPCC report and its implications - and despite being unable to meet the current targets for emission reductions - the Committee on Climate Change has still recommended a net-zero target for 2050. The emergency motion is not accompanied by any meaningful policy change that would improve the UK’s ability to meet any climate change targets. These policies, while they seem a step in the right direction, make little meaningful commitments to affect the actual change needed.

It seems likely that the climate change emergency motion was springboarded by the Extinction Rebellion movement. Thus Extinction Rebellion has had a substantial impact on getting the government to act, even if government policies are still trailing behind. 

However, no one is clear on what the climate emergency means – and, other than planting trees, little in the way of concrete plans have been released that would actually allow the UK to meet any of their own emission reduction targets. From this, one would be tempted to conclude that their tangible and meaningful impact on UK environmental policy has been limited.

These changes – however superficial – do demonstrate a vast shift in attitude. People are talking about the climate crisis and the government has officially recognised the crisis. 

It seems that Extinction Rebellion is by no means done yet - if we take their disgruntled statements about the inadequacy of the proposed 2050 targets as a significant indicator of much more civil disobedience to come. As of yet, it is too early to comment on their full impact.

But, for a movement in its infancy, the level of debate and discussion surrounding their movements is certainly impressive.

If we take the level of media coverage and conversation around their actions as an indicator, this is only the beginning of their impact on how we deal with climate crisis in the UK.

The movement, however, has only just begun. Only time will tell if their drastic civil disobedience will shape the UK’s environmental policies and whether their demands will ever be met.

Find out more about Extinction Rebellion.

Lead image: Teuta Hoxha

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