Last year, parliament declared a climate emergency. At the time, it was a sign of our success. Today, it is a symbol of our failure.
It is always difficult to measure the success of a protest. Political change is complicated. It does not just happen in the corridors of parliament; it happens in our homes and on our streets. It takes hold of our hearts and of our minds in ways unimaginable. It does not compel people to act so much as it persuades people to dream.
Last year, the United Kingdom became the first country in the world to declare a climate emergency. In just six months, Extinction Rebellion had seemingly achieved the first of our three demands. We had grown from a small group of determined activists to a global movement of tens of thousands of people, and this was our first success. And it certainly felt like a success at the time.
Against all odds, we organised one of the largest campaigns of civil disobedience in modern history. Over a thousand people were arrested over ten days of rolling rebellion and our protests dominated the headlines. At the end of the fortnight, we were given meetings with members of the Cabinet, the Shadow Cabinet, and the Mayor of London. It led to change in parliament and it changed the minds of millions of people.
Today, on the anniversary of that historic declaration, it seems a good time to take stock. To reflect on what we got right, and on what we got wrong, and to plan for the future ahead. If there is one thing we know for certain it is that, as the world moves from a more reformist mode of politics to a more revolutionary one, it is incumbent on ordinary people to step up and create change.
Opinion polls tell a more complicated story of our movement. Only one in four people say that they support the tactics of Extinction Rebellion. However, they also show the tactics of the movement have already had a profound effect on public consciousness.
Concern about the environment increased dramatically during the protests and has remained high ever since, especially amongst young people. Most people agree that the government is not doing enough to tackle the climate and ecological emergency, and far more people agree with the demands of Extinction Rebellion than with the official targets of the Conservative Party.
In a recent poll published by Survation, only 15% of people supported the government target for net zero carbon emissions. 64% of people said it needs to be more ambitious than the current date of 2050 and, amazingly, 33% of people agreed with Extinction Rebellion that it needed to be brought forward to 2025.
Whilst the general public might oppose the tactics of Extinction Rebellion, it seems — perhaps counterintuitively — that the tactics are working. After all, civil disobedience has never been popular at the time that it happens. From the suffragettes to the civil rights movement, public opinion has been vehemently opposed to these tactics until, suddenly, they are a matter for the history books. Suddenly, everyone forgets about the disruption that they caused and the damage that they have done. The cause is deemed to be just. The deed is forgiven.
But it is a mistake, I think, to present these protests as an unmitigated success.
In the months that followed, the climate movement failed to adapt to the change that it had created. Ironically, after years of defeat, we were incapable of dealing with success. Subsequent protests inevitably did not enjoy the same levels of success and we retreated into factional infighting, blaming one another for our sudden changes in fortune.
Extinction Rebellion had sounded the alarm, but we had not been expecting to succeed. And we certainly had not planned for what happened next.
In hindsight, the movement should have taken a break. It should have paused to rest and to recover, to embed itself properly in the local community and to concentrate on the far more difficult, but no less important, task of political education. We should have overhauled our systems and made sure that our structures were democratic and accountable. We should have rewritten our demands and returned, emboldened and impassioned, with a greater focus on climate and ecological justice.
Last year, one of the reasons that the protests succeeded was because, for two short weeks, the climate movement and the labour movement worked hand in hand.
As news of the declaration broke, hundreds of people gathered in Parliament Square. There were people there from the trade union movement and the green movement, activists from the Labour Party and the Green Party, from big organisations, like Greenpeace, and from small grassroots activist groups, like Extinction Rebellion.
Addressing the crowds from a makeshift stage, Jeremy Corbyn thanked protestors for everything they had done not just over the last few weeks, but over the last few decades. “We have now declared a climate emergency”, he said to enormous cheers.
The Labour Party currently has one of the most ambitious climate policies of any centre-left party in Europe. Whilst many climate activists would refuse to acknowledge this, one of our greatest achievements was creating the social conditions in which the Green New Deal could be championed so loudly and so vociferously in the mainstream media.
In the end, we know that this project was also a failure. For my own part, I hope that the Labour Party will continue to put climate change at the heart of its policymaking. The test for their next manifesto is not whether they continue to support the Green New Deal — that is a basic requirement of anyone even vaguely worried about climate change — but whether they can build on it. The Green New Deal was not ambitious enough, but it was a positive first step. If the Labour Party is serious about climate justice in the future, it will have to be a lot more radical.
Clearly, we cannot waste any more years on a single project. After all, the next election is years away. We have just over a decade to prevent runaway climate change and, in the meantime, our government is investing more money in fossil fuels than any other country in Europe. It is important that we are honest about what this means. Put simply, the path we are currently on will mean the death and displacement of hundreds of millions of people.
The IPCC tells us that in order to tackle the climate and ecological emergency, we will need “rapid, far-reaching, and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”. But this change will not come from parliament. It will come from the people.
We all have to work together in the struggle for climate justice. After all, the struggle for climate and ecological justice is the same struggle for social and economic emancipation. It is indivisible from the class struggle and yet for too long the labour movement and the environmental movement have seen themselves as competitors, not as comrades.
If we are to recapture the irresistible energy of the rebellion, we must relearn how to work alongside one another. But, throughout that, the revolutionary impulse of Extinction Rebellion must not be tempered. We cannot settle for piecemeal change or pretend that systemic change will come through parliament. It will come from the ground up. It always has and it always will.
Today, the declaration of climate emergency has started to seem, not like a sign of our success, but a sign of our failure. It stands as the one crowning achievement of Extinction Rebellion, and yet it does not legally compel the government to act. Neither has it led to any change in law. It means nothing. It is a hollow declaration of empty words and good intentions.
We have to create a new world from the wreckage of the old one. We have to be smart about where we are heading and what is necessary in order to win. As Banksy scrawled on a wall on the final day of rebellion, “from this moment, despair ends and tactics begin”. The quotation comes from the Belgian radical Raoul Vaneigem in his book The Revolution of Everyday Life. “Despair”, he says, “is the infantile disorder of the revolutionaries of everyday life”.
So please let us not despair. Let us celebrate our success and be honest about our failures. Let us go forward, together, in the struggle for climate justice. We have a world to win.