Why did the street protests succeed where others have failed?
The UK has become the first country in the world to declare a national climate emergency following protests and acts of civil disobedience from a grassroots environmental group that launched in October.
It’s a spectacular success for the Extinction Rebellion, while most climate protests have failed to capture the attention of the public, media and politicians. Although the declaration on its own does not mandate action on climate, it was the first of the protester’s three demands, along with reducing emissions to net zero by 2025, and creating an assembly of citizens to lead the government on climate issues.
On Wednesday in the UK, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn called on the government to declare the climate emergency: “We are living in a climate crisis that will spiral dangerously out of control unless we take rapid and dramatic action now.”
The proposal, which demonstrates the will of the parliament on the issue but does not legally compel the government to act, was approved without a vote.
Extinction Rebellion said in a statement: “This is the first step in the government telling the truth about the climate and ecological emergency.
“Pressure on politicians will now increase as nothing but decisive action will suffice.”
The Extinction Rebellion has changed the paradigm of climate protests, according to Leo Barasi, the author of Climate Majority, a book investigating how to shift public opinion about climate change.
He’s also written a Master’s thesis on whether climate protests will ever convince lawmakers to act on climate change (his conclusion, they wouldn’t).
“I found that extreme weather sometimes influences public opinion, while UN climate conferences and IPCC reports often trigger media coverage and parliamentary debates,” Barasi wrote on his blog.
“But climate protests generally have little direct effect on any of these.”
For the thesis, Barasi looked at public protests from 2006-2014 and found no examples of them leading to debates in parliament, while every UN conference or report, and half of the extreme weather events, were mentioned in the UK parliament.
Then came the Extinction Rebellion (XR).
For 10 days in April, tens of thousands of people committed acts of civil disobedience, including blocking traffic across the Thames, gluing themselves onto trains, graffiting the headquarters of oil giant Shell, and blockading the stock exchange.
And it apparently worked: The protests led to two separate parliamentary debates, and these were capped this week by the successful climate emergency motion.
The UK media has also mentioned climate change more in April than it has at any other time in the last five years – including during the Paris Agreement negotiations in 2016.