‘We Quit’: Extinction Rebellion Vows to Halt Disruptive Protests. So What’s Next?

A prominent climate advocacy group in the United Kingdom says it will temporarily pause disruptive protests this year, acknowledging that some of the bolder demonstrations aimed at raising awareness on global warming have caused a significant public backlash.

With both global greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel financing continuing to rise to record levels, frustrated climate activists have resorted to increasingly radical—and sometimes bizarre—forms of protest in recent months. Over the last year, climate activists have targeted famous artworks by throwing food at them and gluing themselves to their frames, deflated the tires of gas-guzzling SUVs en masse and blockaded major highways and airports around the world.

But in a statement last week titled “We Quit,” Extinction Rebellion’s founding branch in the U.K. announced that it would “prioritize attendance over arrest and relationships over roadblocks” this year by halting disruptive protest tactics at least through spring. The international climate group, which was established in 2018 and has since played a key role in the escalation of civil disobedience in climate demonstrations, said it will instead focus on building a broader coalition of supporters ahead of a massive protest they have planned on April 21, when they hope to gather 100,000 demonstrators at the U.K. Parliament—a rally it’s calling the “Big One.”

“As we ring in the new year, we make a controversial resolution to temporarily shift away from public disruption as a primary tactic,” the group’s statement said. “We recognise and celebrate the power of disruption to raise the alarm and believe that constantly evolving tactics is a necessary approach.”

Experts who study social protest movements generally agree that civil disobedience has long played an important role in shaping history, especially in democratic superpowers like the United Kingdom and the United States. And a respectable body of research suggests nonviolent civil disobedience is an effective tactic in achieving the aims of social movements.

But last year’s wave of climate protests, held at famous art galleries, popular sports events and in the middle of major transportation hubs, have appeared to strike a nerve for many people, with even some of the climate movement’s most prominent figures calling the demonstrations counterproductive. 

Recent polls conducted in the U.K., the U.S. and Germany, where many of last year’s disruptive protests occurred, suggest that the majority of the people in those countries disapprove of the climate activists’ tactics, even if they agree with their cause. One poll found that just 21 percent of U.K. residents approve of disruptive climate protests, with 64 percent disapproving. Another found 14 percent of German residents approve, with 83 percent disapproving. Similarly, a U.S. poll showed an approval rating of 13 percent from its respondents, with 46 percent saying the disruptive tactics “decrease their support for efforts to address climate change.”

Marijn van de Geer, the media coordinator for the U.K. chapter of Extinction Rebellion, acknowledged those poor approval ratings in an interview with Good Morning Britain this week, saying she believes the group has achieved all it can using disruptive tactics and that building broader support will require a different approach. “We’ve listened to the public,” van de Geer told the morning talk show’s hosts. “They say over and over again, ‘We support what you stand for but we don’t like how you do it.’”

The protests have also triggered a wave of new anti-protest laws in several Western countries, levying stiffer penalties against demonstrators for trespassing, disrupting traffic and business operations, or for generally being a public nuisance. It’s a global trend that has concerned many civil rights experts.

So what does this mean for 2023 and should we expect a tamer climate movement? Maybe not.

Even with Extinction Rebellion temporarily sidelining its members when it comes to confrontational protests, other groups have vowed to double down this year on their efforts to interrupt art gallery visits and morning commutes to the office. Thousands of climate activists were arrested during protests last year in Europe, with more than a hundred more still in jail or awaiting trial, according to the climate advocacy groups Just Stop Oil, Insulate Britain and Last Generation. Still, the groups say they’re undeterred.

“It’s 2023 and XR has quit,” Just Stop Oil wrote in a statement to Yahoo News. “But it’s 2023, and we are barrelling down the highway to the loss of ordered civil society, as extreme weather impacts tens of millions, as our country becomes unrecognizable. … We must move from disobedience into civil resistance.”

Thanks for reading Today’s Climate, and I’ll be back in your inbox Friday.

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68 percent

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