Last week, something pretty amazing happened: Brexit took a desperately overdue rest, and climate change dominated the news agenda.
Maybe it was the record-breaking Easter weather. Maybe it was the dramatic shift in tone of the David Attenborough-fronted Netflix and BBC documentaries aired in April. Perhaps it was the heartbreaking sincerity of the school strike movement inspired by the 16 year old activist Greta Thunberg, or the raft of councils declaring a ‘climate emergency’.
Or maybe - despite the controversial decision to actively encourage arrests on a large scale and ‘shut down’ parts of central London - the stark and uncompromising messaging and disruptive tactics of the Extinction Rebellion protests caught the public mood.
Initial polling suggests some sympathy for Extinction Rebellion's aims - if not always their approach - but it’s not yet clear what the wider public reaction to the protests have been (and the reassuringly self-confirmatory power of social media bubbles can be misleading).
On its own terms, though, the Extinction Rebellion occupation of four iconic London locations for an entire week has surely surpassed all expectations.
With what seemed to be a generally supportive reaction from Londoners, some irresistible props and imagery (especially the pink boat in Oxford circus emblazoned with the words 'Tell the truth') and an overwhelmingly positive, unaggressive and non-violent atmosphere, the Extinction Rebellion protests seem to have achieved something invaluable: suddenly, everyone’s talking about climate change.
So while there were (and should continue to be) constructive challenges of the strategy and messaging of any group with such a high public profile (and therefore a responsibility to make what they say count), the onus is now on the wider climate movement to respond to the energy that Extinction Rebellion has created.
Talking Climate - time for a Citizens' Assembly?
One of the key demands made by Extinction Rebellion is for a ‘Citizens’ Assembly’ - a proposal that squarely reflects our own people-first approach to social change at Climate Outreach. A similar exercise in Ireland is credited with producing and endorsing a range of impressive policy proposals.
And our own experience of running dozens of discussion groups (what we call ‘narrative workshops’) with diverse members of the public, is that when given the chance to reflect - in their own terms, and with reference to their own values and aspirations for the future - on what climate change and a societal response to it means, most people relish the opportunity, and are keen to engage.
But campaigners should not be naive about the risks, as well as the possible benefits, of partially handing over the reins for critical public policy issues like climate change to a representative group of citizens.
While Citizens' Assemblies are the polar opposite of a binary yes/no decision, the division and polarisation provoked by Brexit should act as a warning sign - public decisions on how to decarbonise our societies are unlikely to be consensual. ‘The public’ may not want to move as far or as fast as Extinction Rebellion are advocating. Our own work on how people think about ‘net zero’ goals suggests they are broadly supportive but that totemic issues like reducing meat-eating and avoiding flying will be a major uphill battle.
None of this argues against the need for a Citizens Assembly, though - the sooner this demand can be met, the better. The government has begun responding to the demonstrations, but has not reacted to the Citizens’ Assembly demand specifically. If government won’t step up, perhaps others should.
A citizen’s panel is a key feature of the new Climate Change and Social Transformations centre (CAST Centre) that we’re partnering on, starting May 1st - so do we need to wait for the government to lead a national conversation on climate change, or can the climate sector do it ourselves?
Widening diversity - new voices to reach beyond the usual suspects
One of the criticisms of the Extinction Rebellion movement has been the lack of ethnic and socio-economic diversity - in other words, it’s the usual crowd of middle-class white folks. This is a legitimate concern, although one that could equally be levelled at almost any other climate campaign. But if Extinction Rebellion have commandeered a national stage, and adeptly hijacked the spotlight, then the question of who speaks for climate change - and what they say when they have people’s attention - is absolutely critical.
In our own research exploring perceptions of protest imagery, we found that many people don’t identify with ‘typical environmentalists’ even if they may have more in common in terms of their views about climate change and sustainability than they think. Ensuring that the imagery that defines Extinction Rebellion reflects the diversity of the nation, and in particular under-represented groups, is crucial.
Can future actions foreground the voices, perspectives and faces of unusual suspects, like the people in the images below? What do our Trade Unions have to say about a transition to zero carbon by 2025? What do nurses, doctors and other health professionals think about the health benefits of a low carbon, low pollution society?
Harnessing the energy of the moment
So what happens next?
The Extinction Rebellion protests have clearly cut through. Caroline Lucas in the Guardian argues that climate change has now ‘broken through to the mainstream’. One obvious response to this is if that’s the case, how do we keep it there?
Decarbonisation isn’t a button that gets pushed, or even really a ‘demand’ that gets met. It's a decades-long process that will require centuries of maintenance, monitoring and policing. The shift to a zero-carbon world unarguably needs to begin immediately, but the responsibility for keeping it there - not tracking back to our old fossil-fueled ways, or countries simply leaving global agreements (as the US currently says it has) - lies ahead.
This means that the unprecedented industrial and economic transition required (e.g. the back-in-favour ‘Green New Deal’ approach) must be based on a social and political transition that - even on the most charitable interpretation of public attitudes data and the events of the past few weeks - most people have only just begun.
Exactly the same set of questions that existed before this welcome surge of emotion and activity will exist after the focus on the Extinction Rebellion protests die down. The same tensions, conflicts, trade-offs and difficult choices remain - as our work in Alberta, Canada shows, careful approaches are required to ensure that the notion of a ‘just transition’ is not simply a catchphrase for those inside the green bubble.
Any ecological transition must be socially sustainable, or it will fray and rip, just when we need a steady hand on the tiller - or, rather, all our hands, heads and hearts to be steadily focused on the inevitable transition that lies ahead.
Extinction Rebellion has thrown down a gauntlet for the climate change movement to respond to. Everyone’s talking climate - but whether we can turn this moment into a sustained social movement depends on where these crucial climate conversations go next.