Living in Bristol as a university student, I am used to experiencing the theatrical and disruptive stunts pulled by environmental groups like Extinction Rebellion.
This year the group have been demonstrating against the expansion of Bristol Airport, and last year blocked the Clifton Suspension Bridge as part of their campaign against climate change. In London too, last year they caused a stir by mounting London Underground trains, to the dismay of angry commuters.
Just as we thought XR had slipped from public consciousness, a splinter group named Insulate Britain have emerged on the scene, attracting media attention for their increasingly provocative protests. Blocking the M25 by sitting on the road as effectively human shields, they have been calling on the government to insulate all homes by 2030 to cut carbon emissions. In response to the protests, the government obtained an injunction which meant that anyone found guilty of blocking the motorway could get an unlimited fine or be imprisoned for up to two years. Whilst a two year prison sentence seems draconian, the government are sending a clear message: rule breaking will not be tolerated.
Climate change is a real threat, with one report finding that climate change is ‘inevitable and irreversible’ unless we make serious changes. More certainly needs to be done by leading countries to set the example and not just meet the IPCOA targets, but try to exceed them. When data has shown that not one state which signed up to the Paris Climate Accords are meeting their targets, you know we have a very serious problem.
Part of me is therefore sympathetic to some of XR and Insulate Britain’s aims and objectives, but feel as though the way they are conducting their protests are counterproductive and detrimental to the ideas they are trying to push. These radical groups have certainly got the public talking, but I personally feel this has been for the wrong reasons.
Evidence suggests that these groups’ strategy of courting press attention by any means necessary has made these movements more recognisable to the general public, but more recognisable does not equate to positive feelings towards these groups. In a media industry in which pictures on front pages grab the attention of readers and graphics on television are the first thing viewers see on the evening bulletin, the scenes of climate protestors clashing with police and ‘playing dead’ on the M25 will likely put the general public off.
The intended messages about climate justice and global warming end up lost and meaningless as viewers have already lost respect and tuned out. It becomes difficult to be taken seriously and demand to be listened to when you are being disruptive agitators who seem disorderly and combative. Winning over the hearts and minds of the public at home will never be possible when they learn that the protests prevented a woman from being able to visit her sick mother, or delayed a woman who had a stroke from being able to see a doctor by six hours due to a protest on the M25.
XR and Insulate Britain would argue that all other forms of protest have been ineffective and direct disruptive action is the only way to make the country listen. While for some this may be the case, for I think it will make most feel more apathetic to the cause and more likely to tar all environmentalists as radicals and members of the ‘loony left’. Ministers are also able to pour scorn on climate protestors and use their troublesome behaviour as a reason for not moving swiftly when it comes to climate, alluding to the poor approval ratings of XR as evidence they have the public on side. Rather than speed up progress, XR and Insulate Britain might have the effect of making the government dig their feet in further. Ultimately, I understand that radical climate policy needs to be enacted if we want to preserve our world for future generations, but fear that the tactics of these groups are doing more harm than good.