The latest Extinction Rebellion (XR) protests show the climate change movement is “mobilising right across society” in Britain, campaigners have claimed.
XR launched in the UK in 2018 and has grown to become a global movement. The group is currently in the midst of 10 days of planned direct action in central London. The protests saw more than 300 people arrested on Thursday, with one group of demonstrators gluing themselves to the ground around Parliament in what has come to be a signature XR protest style.
This week’s action also saw Writers Rebel, a group formed in support of the aims of Extinction Rebellion, demonstrate outside 55 Tufton Street, a centre for right-wing think tanks. The event was hosted by Oscar-winning actor Sir Mark Rylance and saw appearances from top names in the British arts world, including author Zadie Smith and actress Juliet Stevenson.
XR is calling on the Government to declare a climate and ecological emergency, reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025 and establish a “citizens’ assembly on climate and ecological justice”.
Donnachadh McCarthy, an environmental author and a spokesperson for XR, told the Standard: “Listening to Mark Rylance… we had Britain’s artistic elite coming out on the street and saying ‘we have to do this’. We had the lawyers out, we had the doctors out, we had many other groups – the protests this week show we are mobilising right across society.”
Social media posts from the London protests also suggested a diversity of support. Groups holding banners have included “XR Jews”, “XR Muslims” and “XR Buddhists”. Groups of NHS workers protesting include one named “Doctors for XR”, and there is an “XR legal support” group, offering support for arrested protesters.
The movement also appears to be spanning generations. A 92-year-old man from Hastings was arrested in Parliament Square on Tuesday while protesting, while other demonstrators are in their teens.
Mr McCarthy added that the group believes support for its goals has become more widespread following the Covid-19 lockdown, as “people have reviewed what’s urgent in the pause of 2020”.
He said the group’s own research found two-thirds of Conservative voters “want a green recovery to be part of government plans” post-pandemic.
Asked whether central London streets being emptier as a result of the pandemic makes the group’s latest protests less impactful, he said: “I think the visual stories and actions we are doing are as powerful as ever.”
The group has called on MPs to pass a new Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill, tabled by the Green Party MP Caroline Lucas in the Commons this week.
The protests were organised for the start of September to coincide with MPs returning to Parliament from the summer recess. The group told the Independent the move was made to ensure politicians “start anew with justice, care and life at the heart of it”.
The XR website states: “From [September] 1st we will peacefully disrupt the UK Parliament in London, carrying out pressure-building actions over two weeks, until they back the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill and prepare for crisis with a National Citizens’ Assembly.”
The private members Bill – drafted with the input of scientists, lawyers and academics – aims to strengthen the Climate Change Act.
Mr McCarthy hailed the Bill’s reading in Parliament on Wednesday, and the support it garnered, as an “amazing poster day for us [XR]” and called on voters who “want a green recovery” to contact their MPs asking them to support the Bill.
He said: “It’s really exciting… That’s what non-violent direct action does, it puts the issue back on the agenda in politics and in the media.”
Last month, Greta Thunberg argued that G20 government Covid-19 pandemic rescue packages are giving more support to fossil fuels than to low-carbon energy, and pushed for a greener recovery.
Mr McCarthy has pointed to the UK Treasury and Bank of England bailing out fossil-fuel based industries – including airlines – in recent months.
He claims the Treasury is “pouring literally hundreds of millions into a dirty recovery”.
He said: “We have a difficulty in Britain they don’t have in America… At least Trump says he is going to trash the environment. Our government are saying they are doing it [a green recovery] but they aren’t.
“They have cut billions of pounds from the investment in energy efficiency. That £3billion in the recovery plan doesn’t take us back to where we should have been three or four years ago.”
“It’s greenwashing… it’s a green fig leaf for business as usual,” he added.
A UK government spokesperson has previously said it “continues to take our environmental responsibilities seriously and remain committed to meeting our climate change and wider environmental targets, including net zero [emissions] by 2050.”
Chancellor Rishi Sunak has set out £3 billion of “green spending”, focusing on improving energy efficiency around the country.
The latest demonstrations follow spates of protests over the past two years aimed at attracting political and media attention through actions that disrupt everyday life. Together with the global school strikes launched by Thunberg, XR has raised the profile of the climate crisis.
Last year more than 1,700 arrests were made during a 10-day “Autumn Uprising”, which saw major disruption across the UK.
The Metropolitan Police said more than 200 of the 300 arrests made on Thursday were linked to a demonstration on Lambeth Bridge in the afternoon, which saw the bridge closed to traffic.
Earlier in the day, some protesters glued themselves to the ground around Parliament while others staged a sit-in elsewhere around the perimeter of the parliamentary estate, including at the Carriage Gates. Protests were also staged outside the Treasury in Horse Guards Road.
Some XR supporters said they “jumped the barriers and ran past armed police to glue (themselves) on to the floor outside the House of Lords”.
For Friday’s protests, the Met has imposed conditions meaning the gatherings can only take place off the main roads at Parliament Square between 8am and 7pm.
Some 160 arrests were made on the first day of action on Tuesday, for offences including breaching public order conditions, obstructing the highway, obstructing police and assault on an emergency worker, and 72 people had been arrested as of 5pm on Wednesday, the majority for breaching conditions imposed on the Parliament Square demonstration.
Deputy Assistant Commissioner Laurence Taylor told PA Media: “The message is really clear – we absolutely understand people have a right to protest, but you do not have a right to disrupt people’s lives and cause huge disruption to the communities in London.
“So if you want to protest, go to Parliament Square… if you’re committing offences elsewhere in London you are liable to arrest and we will be taking action against you.”