Extinction Rebellion

Extinction Rebellion: use capitalism to save the planet

Extinction Rebellion, along with Greta Thunberg, have succeeded in highlighting the Climate Change emergency. In this post I suggest how can we move from protest to real action.

Greta Thunberg

European Parliament from EU [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
An unknown Swedish teenager decided to go on strike from school. This wasn’t to enjoy a day off, but to demonstrate outside Sweden’s parliament. The reason: the lack of action to tackle climate change. We may come to regard that one day, that simple protest by Greta Thunberg (photo: left) as a major turning point in history. For it created the largest youth-led movement in the world. But it hasn’t been without its critics.

A divisive figure

How can a 16-year-old in plaits, who has dedicated herself to the worthy cause of saving the planet, inspire rage? Following her speech to the UN, in which she told off world leaders for lack of action, her critics pounced. One commentator likened her to a figure in a Nazi propaganda poster. Another referred to her as mentally ill.

We don’t like feeling bad about our choices. That’s why some people laugh at vegans and feel suspicious of those who go teetotal. Her critics attack her because it’s far easier than discrediting her argument. Everything Thunberg says is true; ask Extinction Rebellion.

Extinction Rebellion

Josemel55 [Public domain]
Extinction Rebellion is a decentralised self-organising system. Anyone who follows its ten core principles can form a cell or affinity group. Then take action in the name of Extinction Rebellion. Disruption is a key strategy: such as blocking traffic, trains and offices. It divides active members, known as rebels into arrestables and the rest. Arrestables allow themselves to be arrested, leaving police with a dilemma. Arrest large numbers, clogging cells and creating publicity; or let them break the law? An example of this is the recent Climate Strike.

Climate Strike

Millions of young people took part in the September 2019 Climate Strike. In general, these demonstrations were sincere and well-intentioned. They mobilised large numbers of people for sustained protest on a scale not seen in years. Yes, they inevitably caused some inconvenience, but that was the point. Protesters included a former Metropolitan police detective and the Prime Minister’s father. Other protests included the April, occupation of Marble Arch, Waterloo Bridge, Piccadilly Circus, Parliament Square and Oxford Circus for 11 days. In total the police arrested 1,130 people. But this was only one of a large number of actions across Britain and beyond.

Extinction Rebellion now has a presence in 72 countries. It has 200,000 supporters signed-up and the backing of public figures, from scientists and actors to clergymen. Although this isn’t always a good thing (see PR Gaffs below).

Major culture change

So, there’s no doubt that Extinction Rebellion is at the vanguard of a major culture change in the UK. The above protests, along with Greta Thunberg’s school strikes, are changing the way we see the world. It has affected the national conversation and initiated policy change:

  • Extinction Rebellion persuaded the government in May 2019 to declare a climate emergency. Some 230 councils out of 408 across the UK have followed suit.
  • Polls show that since its campaign began, climate change has become one of the top three concerns of the British people.
  • In 2013, according to Ipsos, 59% of British people thought the planet was heading for disaster. Now it has gone up to 78%.

Extinction Rebellion: PR gaffs

Now that the era of denial is over, Extinction Rebellion deserves credit for driving climate change up the public agenda. It has done this while keeping the public largely on side. But the group’s targeting of blue-collar workers at Canning Town Tube station in East London did not help the cause. Some demonstrators climbed on top of a train during rush hour, causing chaos.

Nor did the open letter on climate change from more than 100 actors and musicians the day before. In the letter, the celebrities (including Steve Coogan, Benedict Cumberbatch and Bob Geldof) admitted that they led high-carbon lives. But they insisted they wouldn’t let media criticism of their hypocrisy stop them from speaking out in support of Extinction Rebellion .

What a display of vain posturing. These celebrities seem to think that admitting their hypocrisy exonerates them of it. For me, their actions do indeed disqualify them from speaking out. They jet about the world going to film festivals. And some make a lot of money from advertising SUVs (see the video below).

Extinction Rebellion: embrace capitalism

Of course, climate change should alarm anyone with a basic sense of prudence. For me, the problem is that the Extinction Rebellion’s worthy cause is so anti-capitalist. Many of them seem to feel that the system has to be overthrown. And it mistakes protest for persuasion.

Causing gridlock in central London raises publicity, but most people already knows about climate change. What we don’t know is what to do about it. That requires not direct action, but realising that capitalism, for all its flaws, is an essential engine of innovation in the fight against climate change. Indeed, the free market is actually one of the best tools we have for tackling this problem. Many businesses are now piling money into green technology. This includes electric vehicles, battery technology and wind power. The reasons: they want a slice of the green pie, and we should be encouraging them.

After all, more than 30 years have passed since leaders first agreed that they needed to halt greenhouse gases. Yet emissions have only sped up. Politicians make speeches in UN climate change summits, but don’t match their words with action. They need to grasp the enormity of the climate change challenge. They need to put it at the centre of all policymaking. This applies to the UK as much as anyone. We’re on course to miss two-thirds of our targets set out in the carbon budgets covering the years 2023-32.

And limiting temperature rises to 2°C above pre-industrial norms would still leave atmospheric carbon dioxide at well over 450 parts per million (ppm). We evolved (and until less than a century ago, lived) on a 300 ppm planet. We need to get the Earth’s climate back to its pre-industrial state, without doing the same to the economy.

A polarising issue

But continual protests turns climate change into a polarising issue, and provokes resistance. A poll earlier this year found that seven out of ten people oppose spending $120 each a year to combat climate change. Of the 195 signatories to the 2016 Paris Agreement, 17 countries are meeting their modest, self-assigned targets. The reason for this failure is simple: carbon-cutting policies are expensive. The annual cost of promises in the Democrats’ proposed Green New Deal, for example, would total about $2trn, or about $6,400 for every American. A report commissioned by the New Zealand government found that reaching net zero by 2050 would cost the country more than its entire current annual national budget every year.

People would react badly if politicians imposed radical changes, halting economic growth. Some might sacrifice their modern comforts, but persuading the majority, in the time available, will be a very hard task.

The capitalist solution

The UN recently hosted the first Global Forum on Climate Restoration. Entrepreneurs and climate scientists discussed the huge challenge of removing and permanently storing around a trillion tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere by 2050. They also presented technically viable ways to do this. The focus was on bringing down the cost of green energy. When renewables become cheaper than coal and oil, everyone will switch. It is innovation, not hysteria, that will win this battle.

The idea that the West should abruptly stop using fossil fuels, however environmentally desirable, is a recipe for global upheaval. Pivotal states whose economies rely on them like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Russia would descend into chaos. Nor would the West accept the Green dream of zero growth. The populist backlash to a drop in living standards would see to that. Emmanuel Macron taxed petrol: France got the yellow vests movement (mouvement des gilets jaunes). Hillary Clinton pledged to shutter the coal industry: the US got Trump.

Recent gains in the West

Plus what’s often forgotten is that the capitalist West has made most of the gains in recent environmental history. In Britain, for instance, carbon emissions are now at their lowest levels since 1890. Compare that with the horrible green record in the defunct USSR. The same applies to Eastern Europe, and in contemporary socialist states like Venezuela. Many supporters of free markets have avoided the emerging environmental debate. This makes little sense; we should embrace it.

If we don’t then Extinction Rebellion can’t hope to meet its central aim of cutting net emissions to zero by 2025. The Centre for Alternative Technology calculates it would require Britain to install 13,000 extra wind turbines offshore. This would take up an area twice the size of Wales, and another 3,500 onshore, to achieve this. Meat1 and dairy would have to be restricted, and flights per person limited to one every two years.

Sustainable retreat

Bruno Comby: Wikipedia. [CC BY-SA 1.0 ]
Climate experts point out that global warming will continue thousands of years after we remove its proximate causes. No, our goal should be sustainable retreat. This is a term coined by scientist James Lovelock (photo, left). It requires defending against climate shift, swapping farming for synthetic food production, and using advanced energy technologies.

This is not a case of disparaging fatalism, it’s facing up to an entrepreneurial capitalist reality.

Even if market-based approaches to remove carbon dioxide fail entirely, and they won’t, a reasonable estimate is that it would cost 3-5% of global GDP for 20-30 years to return the atmosphere to 300 ppm. As a comparison, ten years ago America diverted 3.5% of its annual GDP to prevent the financial system from collapsing. That felt like a good investment and so does this.

As a climate scientist put it on Newsnight:

I don’t know if we’ve got time to overturn capitalism first and solve climate change later. I’d rather enlist some of the forces we’ve got available to us today.

What do you think? Leave a comment below:

Photo by Lewis Parsons on Unsplash

  1. Research predicts that by 2030, plant-based alternatives will cost five times less than real meat. Green activists should rejoice: ten years from now the quantity of beef mince eaten in the US is likely to have shrunk by 70%, and the demand for cow products halved, opening up 60% of US farmland for reforestation. But they should also bear in mind that the heroes of this story are the ones they typically cite as the arch-villains: science and capitalism.

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