26 August 2021

Ministers should take the fight to Extinction Rebellion – and not just by stopping their protests

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Judging by this week’s coverage, Extinction Rebellion’s ever more outlandish and disruptive demonstrations have certainly had plenty of success with media coverage. But whether the attention they gain for their antics wins converts to their cause is quite another matter. I suspect most find their brand of self-righteous disruption rather off-putting.

As the former Downing St speechwriter Clare Foges put it in a recent Times piece:

“It is the way these activists style themselves: the dreadlocks, the tie-dye, the anoraks, the piercings, the pink hair dye and CND symbol T-shirts. It is the way they sound: strident, angry, earnest, self-righteous. It is the language they use: “climate justice”, “retribution”, “rebellion”. It is the bongo drums they beat and the manifestos they write and the roll-up ciggies they smoke and the hemp shampoo they use and the weird things they practise; last week XR protesters outside the Royal Courts of Justice performed a water ceremony, mixing water from across the UK before pouring it into the Thames.” 

The inconsistency and hypocrisy of their antics is another source of irritation. For such fanatical environmentalists, their behaviour does seem to produce certain discrepancies. They cause traffic jams. Bus lanes are blocked. The Docklands Light Railway, an exceptionally eco-friendly method of public transport, is disrupted. Paint is sprayed. Lawns dug up. Litter is dropped – rather a lot of it. Nickie Aiken, Conservative MP for Cities of London and Westminster, has revealed that 120 tons of rubbish was left on the streets of her constituency by the group’s supporters after one demo.  Nor was it especially convincing to hear Gail Bradbrook, XR’s co-founder, saying that she drives a diesel car on the grounds that switching to an electric one would cost more. 

Then inevitably we have the celebs. Benedict Cumberbatch, the one time star of Jaguar adverts, will pitch up at their demos. Emma Thompson is such a keen XR supporter she flew all the way from the west coast of the US to take part in one of their London protests. 

But while this kind of thing is rather annoying, the fundamental point about Extinction Rebellion is not that they are hypocritical or absurd. It is that their message is untrue.

Take the claim from another celebrity, Stephen Fry, that XR have to get out there and protest in order for the Government to take action. It’s as though the Net Zero commitment, the upcoming ban on new petrol cars and the expensive plans to make people replace their gas boilers had simply passed him by. Whether you like it or not, this is not a government tinkering at the edges on environmental matters.

We also need a more robust message from the Government challenging alarmist messaging that has some people, particularly the young, believing the end is nigh. It is perfectly possible to believe both in climate change science and the necessity of a response without endorsing a false, apocalyptic message.

And we can take some patriotic pride in what we have already achieved. Carbon emissions produced in the UK have fallen by 42% since 1990, faster than any other G7 nation. In China, carbon emissions are increasing by 15% a year – perhaps it’s not Britain the XR rebels should be turning their attention to, but the People’s Republic (though one suspects the Communist Party would be rather less tolerant of their behaviour than our own government). 

Rather than focusing on pointless stunts, we should do all we can to encourage positive technological developments which give a cause for optimism. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Matt Ridley notes that after decades of disappointment there has finally been an important breakthrough for fusion power: 

“If this were to work, then a device the size of a shipping container could power a small city, running on tiny quantities of fuel: some deuterium extracted from seawater and some tritium continuously “bred” inside the thing itself from a little lithium. The output is helium-4, an inert, non-radioactive gas. The environmental footprint would be negligible: no carbon dioxide emissions, no waste, no pollution, very few materials and a pocket-handkerchief of land. We could retire the rest of the energy industry altogether – oil rigs, coal mines, wind turbines, solar farms, hydro dams and all – and set about raising everybody’s standard of living indefinitely, while telling Greta Thunberg to cheer up.” 

There is still uncertainty about the prospects for fusion and countless other areas of innovation. Perhaps some of the hoped for breakthroughs will be thwarted. Even so, the message that the world is coming to an end, maybe some time this century, too often goes unchallenged. Andrew Neil is an honourable exception in the broadcast media. In June, on GB News, he interviewed XR co-founder Roger Hallam who claimed that six billion people would die this century due to global warming. Neil responded pithily: “There is no peer-reviewed published research that backs up your ‘six billion people to die’ [claim]”. 

Too many politicians express ‘sympathy with the aims’ of the Extinction Rebellion – if not the methods. But the aims of XR are quite appalling. An investigation for the think tank Policy Exchange by Richard Walton, a former counter-terror chief, has exposed XR as an extremist revolutionary group. XR wishes to destroy both democracy and free enterprise – that is the underlying motive for it peddling its grotesquely false narrative. 

Yet that narrative is pushed endlessly in schools and on social media. Small wonder so many teenagers conclude, in the words of Dad’s Army’s Private Frazer, that ‘we’re doomed’. That miserablism should be vigorously rebutted. Boris Johnson, with his naturally sunny disposition, should take a lead in doing so.

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Harry Phibbs is a freelance journalist.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.