10 September 2019

What they don’t teach you at Extinction Rebellion boot-camp

By Noel Yaxley

It was approaching midday when a small crowd started to gather outside the local Quaker house. The demographic was mainly white, upper-middle class and aged between 35-65. We were meeting with the climate activist group Extinction Rebellion to discuss alternative options to the global warming crisis in the West.

As we were corralled into a rather capacious and decadent looking room, we were split into groups of roughly six or seven. Once we were all settled and the noise had abated, we were introduced to ‘Dan’ our main speaker for the day who was to introduce us to the procedural elements of this ‘people’s assembly’ and to explain to us how to communicate. Dan told us that Extinction Rebellion copied the hand signals of the occupy movement: so if we needed to speak we had to raise our hands in certain ways. We were then given a brief history of the movement and learnt that the group started in 2016 and in its inchoate form known as ‘Rising up’. Once the history lesson was out of the way, an antiquated projector was brought out (along with those middle school translucent sheets) and beamed upon the whiteboard a set of upcoming projects. We were given dates for a climate strike, a car free day and something called a ‘die-in’ (more on that later).

I was sat on a table with six other people. We had to nominate a ‘facilitator’ who would be responsible for liaising with Dan, our speaker for the day. Then we were given questions to freely debate between the group. Dan decided what the questions should be. The first question was scribbled on a whiteboard that read “What personally concerns you about the climate and ecological crisis?” Then the day truly began.

A man in his late sixties who had been relatively inconspicuous to this point, kicked things off and quickly became very fired up, declaring “If we are going to survive as a species, we must do all we can to halt all meat production, a ban, or something”.

This was a curious argument, since giving up meat will do very little to halt climate change – as Bjorn Lomborg, president of the Copenhagen Consensus Centre writes, even if we all adopted a vegetarian diet overnight we would only cut our per capita emissions by between 2-4%. As it is, according to data from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, UK greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture have fallen 16% since 1990.

Once things settled down, our speaker started to tell us about the die-in. He explained to us all that in a few weeks there was to be a protest in London where activists were encouraged to lay down in the middle of a busy street blocking all traffic to highlight the pernicious effects on the environment from exhaust fumes on private vehicles. We were told that if we were approached during the protest, we should encourage people to use public transport like the underground. What we weren’t told is the fact that the underground is up to thirty times worse for pollution than the average London street, according to a Transport for London study. Hampstead Station in Northwest London for example contains roughly 492 micrograms of particulate matter (PM) 2.5 per cubic metre, compared with a roadside average of 16 micrograms of PM 2.5 per cubic metre.

After a short recess we were all greeted with the projector again. This time, we were shown the ‘Extinction Rebellion Future World Manifesto’.This, we were told, is a work-in-progress. It was here that Dan was keen to stress a key point salient to the movement: “If we are to build a more beautiful future world, we must start by drastically reducing our use of fossil fuels as they contribute to carbon emissions. This is crucial”.

This hardly seems contentious – indeed it’s what the government has been doing for the last 30 years already, which seems to have passed Extinction Rebellion by. UK carbon emissions have been dramatically falling since 1990, and are now at levels not seen since 1890. Coal as a source of energy is barely used in the UK now – in 1995 it produced 22% of our electricity; today it produces just over 5%, as a result of a reduction in usage.

We were told that the main aim of the Extinction Rebellion movement is to reach zero carbon emissions by 2025, although some suggested 2050 was a more realistic target.

Is this achievable?

Well, the Committee on Climate Change have recognised that to achieve net zero emissions from the UK by 2050 will cost between 1 and 2% of total UK GDP. With GDP being roughly £2 trillion this would imply a cost of roughly £40 billion a year. Although this figure is seen by some as extremely conservative. As Chancellor, Philip Hammond estimated the cost at £70 billion a year, stating “On the basis of these estimates, the total cost of transitioning to a zero-carbon economy is likely to be well in excess of £1tn”.

According to data from the International Energy Agency, the United Kingdom is responsible for just 1.1% of the total global emissions in 2017. China is responsible for 27.2%. Not only this but the per capita carbon footprint data from the World Bank has the U.K at 6.5 metric tons, whilst Qatar comes in at a whopping 45.42 metric tons.

So, what have I learnt from my first experience of a people’s assembly? Most people I have met and heard from seem to favour heavy state regulation and government intervention would appear to do very little to tackle climate change. Offering up ‘feel-good’ options rather than tangible solutions. From wanting to restrict freedom of choice when it comes to food to the appropriation of private property, Extinction Rebellion are coming up with the wrong answers to the wrong questions, asked of the wrong countries.

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Noel Yaxley is a freelance writer