Context is powered by the Thomson Reuters Foundation Newsroom.
On London's streets, Extinction Rebellion goes quiet for the climate
A climate change activist carrying a placard reading, “There is no Planet B” listens to speeches at “The Big One”, a protest organised by Extinction Rebellion outside Parliament in London on April 21, 2023. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Laurie Goering
What’s the context?
Climate change activist group tries less disruptive London protests to win bigger support - but will it work?
- Thousands turn up for rainy 'non-disruptive' protest
- 200 organisations gather under "The Big One" umbrella
- Less confrontational tactics aim to attract new support
LONDON - Under dark skies misting rain, thousands of people from across Britain, including many families, gathered outside the parliament building in Westminster on Friday to try a new tactic to win faster action on climate change: not disrupting anything.
Traffic - halted during previous strikes by climate protest group Extinction Rebellion - flowed mostly freely as activists kept largely to the sidewalks, waving banners, chatting and eating sandwiches while police on foot and horseback kept watch.
Rebekah and Steve Compton, who travelled from North Devon to join the "The Big One" - four days of mass protests backed by more than 200 social and environmental justice organisations - said they thought the different approach made sense in light of public push-back against disruptive demonstrations.
"The change in strategy is what's needed. Doing the same thing repeatedly is not going to work, though (disruption) was important. Now it's about engaging people," Steve said.
The quieter event, which had proceeded without large-scale arrests and disruption by midday, brought out a range of supporters who had not previously joined climate protests.
Felicity Aris, 24, who works at Bates Wells, a London legal firm that has backed "Business Declares", an effort to spur corporate action on climate change and net-zero promises, braved the rain with three colleagues, all holding signs reading "Business shouldn't cost the Earth".
"I was more inclined to come today because they said it wasn't a scary protest," she admitted, noting she had been happy to spot potential clients among the crowd.
Zoe Kavanagh, a Nottingham art teacher, similarly took her children Bella, 11, and Stanley, 9, out of school on Friday to take part in the event, their second climate protest. "I wrote 'climate emergency' as the reason on the form," she noted.
The family first heard of Extinction Rebellion (XR) last year, when they stopped at a T-shirt screen-printing stand run by the group near the Tate Modern art museum in London.
The family then wore their T-shirts on a summer holiday with friends - who, over dinner, enquired why they weren't vegans if they were part of the climate activist group.
When the family admitted they didn't really know what Extinction Rebellion was about - they'd just liked the T-shirt design - the friends pointed them to videos about climate change.
Now Zoe and Bella are vegans, Stanley a "half vegetarian", and all of them had turned up in London to tell parliamentarians that use of climate-heating oil and gas needed to end.
"I had my eyes shut for 49 years," Zoe said. "Now I want my kids to be surrounded by people who know about this stuff. It's good for them to see I'm not a crackpot mum."
Stanley, with a homemade "I'm here for my future" banner tied around the shoulders of his orange rain jacket, said he thought politicians were not moving against fossil fuels "because they're getting money from it".
LEARNING FROM THE CROWD
Ezra Mifsud, 9, another child at the event and a first-time climate protester, said he thought Britain's lawmakers could learn a few things from the crowd, which included stalls handing out climate-change pamphlets and books.
"They should come out and see for themselves what's happening," he said, gesturing to Westminster, just beyond the packed pavement.
Activists found their usual protest ground - the square immediately opposite Parliament - closed off by wire fence panels, in a reported attempt to keep the grass presentable for King Charles' upcoming May coronation.
Instead they walked with their signs and banners - and a large assortment of umbrellas, some marked with Extinction Rebellion's hourglass logo - around the square and in front of Parliament, while activists gave speeches and artists performed.
Sophy Allen, Ezra's mother and a scientist working with Natural England, a conservation body under the UK's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said she was happy that Extinction Rebellion had "arranged something open and accessible to families".
"We need to find a space for everyone to have a voice," she said.
But Allen, also a protester with the more disruptive Just Stop Oil movement - whose members interrupted the World Snooker Championship this week - said she thought confrontation was still crucial to advance climate policy.
"I personally feel direct action is a key part of this - to deal with the urgency that is obvious," she said.
Like many activists, she said she was driven to disruptive action by a combination of knowing the worrying science behind climate change but also fearing how her child would fare in a world altering fast as the planet heats up.
"I think about the shame I'd be feeling in 20 years if I didn't do something," she said.
REACHING OUT TO NEIGHBOURS
Despite Extinction Rebellion's efforts to appeal to a wider audience, many of those at Friday's protest - like Allen - were either already part of the social movement or people whose jobs gave them an insight into the scale of growing climate risks.
Andy Bishop, 46, who works on reducing emissions from building flood-resilience infrastructure projects - "a lot of concrete", he rued - said fear had brought him to Westminster on Friday from his home in Kent.
"I'm here as a terrified citizen. I'm petrified for my kids' future," he said. He called joining protests "therapy, really - feeling like I'm doing something, whether it has the desired effect or not".
He said he was not ready to be arrested as a climate protester, adding "I have a job, a mortgage to pay", even if that amounted to him feeling "slight cowardice".
"How far do you push yourself across the line to make a statement?" he asked.
Fio Adamson, 74, an XR protester since the group's formation in 2018, said Bishop's views were hardly unusual.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, she said she had spent more time knocking on neighbours' doors rather than attending protests, as she tried to push ahead the group's aims.
What she found was that many people now are aware of climate change risks - but are not fans of XR's confrontational style.
"They said, 'I'm behind you, but I don't like your tactics'," noted Adamson, an artist from south London.
The new experiment in non-confrontation - backed up by promises to return to a more aggressive style if demands for action are not met by the British government - feels right, she said.
"Facing what is happening (with climate change) is not easy for people," she admitted. "They recycle, buy fewer clothes, modify their life, but just a bit."
"We need to get more of them on board - and I think you have to keep changing your tactics to do that," she added.
(Reporting by Laurie Goering; editing by Megan Rowling.)