Is Peak Climate Alarmism Behind Us?

It wasn’t so long ago that the world was truly on fire with climate alarm. In September 2019, millions of people around the world participated in a global climate strike, the largest ever, calling for immediate World War II-scale mobilization against the climate crisis in more than 150 countries. A week later, several million marched again. The marches had been organized by Fridays for Future, the youth movement founded by Greta Thunberg, which had been striking every week all year and drawing tens or even hundreds of thousands of protests in a given city.

If Thunberg was the patron saint of this new global climate protest army, Extinction Rebellion was its radical flank. The group announced itself in the fall of 2018, as Thunberg was first gaining attention in Stockholm, with a series of protests in London designed to shut down the city center and force a frank conversation about the state of the climate crisis. “Tell the truth” was the group’s chief demand.

XR was a self-consciously radical outfit, decentralized in structure, and blockaded highways and stock exchanges and disrupted subway service, among other protests. The approach incurred a cost, and much of the British public turned against the group. But it also helped move the needle of public opinion on climate somewhat dramatically in Britain and generated a series of commitments from even the conservative governments under Prime Ministers Theresa May and Boris Johnson. More recently, its tactics have been embraced and replicated by a new suite of disruptive climate groups: Insulate Britain, Scientist Rebellion and Just Stop Oil, which has tossed soup onto museum canvases.

Then, on New Year’s Eve, XR U.K. made a surprise announcement: “We quit.”

“Despite the blaring alarm on the climate and ecological emergency ringing loud and clear, very little has changed,” the group declared in a statement. “As we ring in the New Year, we make a controversial resolution to temporarily shift away from public disruption as a primary tactic.” Instead, the group declared it was going to focus on mass mobilization to pressure those in power rather than shaming or inconveniencing everyday citizens.

In certain ways, the turn reflected debates that have preoccupied the group’s leadership for years. The former XR spokesperson Rupert Read has spent much of the last few years advocating for a “moderate flank” — a more broad-based climate movement less defined by its most radical members. But the XR co-founder Roger Hallam, who left the group to found Just Stop Oil, has been subtweeting the announcement from prison. (“Disruption is not a tactic,” he wrote recently, but “a way of being in the face of the infinity of evil.”) Elsewhere, other groups have staged disruptive protests, as in Germany, where police and protesters have clashed near an open-pit coal mine and Greta Thunberg has been arrested twice.

This month, I spoke to Clare Farrell, a co-founder of XR, and Alanna Byrne, who coordinates its press team, about the strategic turn and why the group believes the time for it is now. This conversation below has been edited and condensed.

Let’s just start narrowly with the statement itself. The headline is a little bit of a red herring. What are you quitting and where did that decision come from?

Alanna Byrne: The media have framed it as us saying we’re stopping disruption altogether, which isn’t exactly right. What we’re saying is that we’re going to take a step back from disrupting the public in the way that we have been — disrupting roads and bridges and getting in the way of people going about their day-to-day business — and instead going straight to government. Disrupting the perpetrators more. We’re working toward a big date in April where we’re aiming to get 100,000 people to come to Parliament.

What is prompting that change of focus?

Clare Farrell: I think people all over the world have been looking at Britain and going: What are you doing?

Opening a new coal mine in Cumbria, for instance, the first new mine in 30 years.

Farrell: It’s very, very frightening. And at the same time, obviously, we’ve got a cost of living crisis. We’ve got people threatening to strike on their energy bills. We’ve got workers on strike in all sectors, it feels like. And we’ve also got a kind of nature and conservation space that is messaging to the public that the government has declared war on nature itself, which is quite a revolutionary language for the conservation N.G.O. sector. There’s an awful lot of people in the U.K. who all have a lot in common, in that the political system isn’t meeting any of their demands.

But there is a massive democratic deficit. And we think that there’s a big opportunity now to talk about the fact that we are a pro-democracy movement — that we have a democratic solution that we propose for citizens to be involved in the decision making about what should be done to face up to these crises. I think people are ready to look at politics and say, surely we could do this differently. And the system we have is completely out of touch and out of date.

Byrne: And it also feels vital and necessary to be able to look at your own strategy and be honest, to say what’s working and what isn’t, and sometimes to say, let’s just try something else. I think that’s where we’re at.

Farrell: We used to talk about shifting the Overton window. I think we have successfully shifted that.

That gets to something else I wanted to ask you about. In the statement, you quite prominently say nothing’s changed. And I know what you mean, in the sense that emissions are still going up and mostly what we have is new rhetorical commitments, both in the public and the private sector. But I also agree with what you just said: that the Overton window has shifted, as has climate policy, if not as much as you or I would hope for. In part because of the radical commitments of activists in particular, we also now have a much more open space for people to express concern or engage on climate issues without having to lie down in front of S.U.V.s, glue themselves to banks or throw paint in museums. That all seems to me to be quite a big deal — not “nothing has changed” so much as “not enough has changed.”

Byrne: The reality is, in the past four years, tons has changed in terms of public awareness and engagement. Shifting from climate change to climate emergency was a radical shift when we first came onto the scene. But even as people become more and more aware, the reality is, as you’ve just said, emissions areoi9 still rising. And here in the U.K., certainly, the government is backpedaling on climate progress. I think we have a responsibility as sort of climate communicators in this space to be radically honest and true to that first principle, which is to tell the truth. And the truth is, four years later, nothing much has changed, even though people are more aware than ever.

We know from polling that people across the U.K. are terrified of the climate crisis, but the reality is that those people aren’t showing up — they’re not coming out on the street. So I think we have to say to ourselves, if people aren’t going to come and put their arm in a lock or glue themselves to something, how do we create a space where people can show up?

There’s also a big question about demands, isn’t there? What I mean is it’s not just a matter of whether there are more people who are willing to go to a protest outside of Parliament than there are who are willing to lie down in a busy intersection; undoubtedly there are. It’s also a matter of how many people want a 1.5-degree Celsius pathway and how many people would be satisfied with a two-degree pathway, and how many people would be satisfied just knowing that policy is moving in the right direction even if it points somewhere north of two degrees.

Farrell: The “tell the truth” demand was never about having a declaration of emergency with nothing to follow it up. It was about working really hard to get the public to actually understand the position that they find themselves in — and playing enormous amounts of catch-up, because of the obfuscation that the fossil fuel industry’s perpetuated, because of the failure of the media, because of a media that actually helped the most deadly campaign of disinformation, in my opinion, in all human history. Because of all that, what was required was a major effort on public information. If people don’t understand why they need to make these drastic policy changes, obviously they’re not going to advocate for them. But if they have the full facts about where they find themselves sitting in the context of human history, where we’re going, how soon we’re headed there, then they will back those policies.

And to me that has a lot to do with advocating for a democracy that isn’t just more inclusive and more representative and more just but also wanting to have a democratic society where more people have better access to the truth and to information and to really understand what needs to happen and why.

How much progress has been made in informing the public, in your view?

Farrell: To me, the general public has a very basic understanding of the causes and the likely impacts of climate change, but I really don’t think that people have got their head around how fast it’s happening.

I think statistical scientific analysis has been part of the problem, frankly, because people have been able to use uncertainty to say, well, you’re not sure. They’ve used that weak point as an intellectual leverage point to screw us all.

But it’s not a statistical analysis problem, it’s a risk problem. And I don’t think we’ve had a decent public discourse on risk. Even if there’s a 0.05 percent chance that you kill everyone, you don’t do that thing — you don’t do that project, you don’t build that bridge, you don’t get on that plane. But talk to people from the insurance sector and they will tell you that the whole of humanity is acting like a crazy person. It’s a total madness that we’ve allowed the thinking to be so poor.

But if there’s still so much misunderstanding, why is that then a moment to take a moderate turn, rather than calling out the hypocrisy and malfeasance a little bit more aggressively?

Farrell: I fully intend to carry on speaking about the crisis in that way.

Byrne: In all honesty, as much as people are becoming more aware here, there does feel like there’s a complacency where people still feel like someone else is going to do it for them. People are waiting for the next election as though that’s going to be the thing that’s going to fix everything. And I think part of our role right now is to say that’s not necessarily going to fix everything. We need you to fully engage with this and come out onto the street.

For me, the statement is quite clear that it’s a short time that we are saying that we’ll do this in order to build up to something in April and then reassess.

So your message to Parliament is, basically: There are many more people who have much greater demands on climate than you might think. Is that right?

Farrell: Completely. But in addition to pushing that Overton window about what’s a reasonable ask of a political system, there’s also pushing the conversation about the fact that the systematic problems of our politics as it is set up today. Our politics is completely incapable of doing anything about these problems in a short space of time, which is when it needs to happen.

David Wallace-Wells (@dwallacewells), a writer for Opinion and a columnist for The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Uninhabitable Earth.”

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