Protest, power and persuading people

Image: Extinction Rebellion.

Direct action on climate change has spawned a three-way tussle between protestors, citizens and democratically elected politicians, says Matthew Farrow.

The sight of Extinction Rebellion making the news again after a pandemic-enforced sabbatical reminded me of a meeting I had back in the dog days of the Gordon Brown government.

At the meeting, also attended by a number of green groups, a senior Number 10 advisor lamented that while the NGOs were effective at articulating what they wanted the government to do, they had never been able to generate the strong public support for decisive environmental measures that would give politicians the political cover they needed to go for policies that would affect consumers.

The advisor had a point. At the time NGOs had a track record of targeted direct action against large corporates. And this was often successful – in 2010 Greenpeace had recently occupied Kingsnorth power station, successfully discouraging its owner E.ON from proposing a new coal power station on the site. And they often ran local community-based campaigns against proposals for development such as greenfield housing or energy-from-waste plants. But as the adviser rightly pointed out, NGO campaigns had not shifted the dial towards public acceptability of the sweeping policy changes that – as was already clear in 2010 – were needed to tackle climate change.

It seems to me that Extinction Rebellion have sought to rise to that challenge, albeit in a negative way. If the public are wary of supporting an end to gas boilers and mandatory expensive electric cars, then XR reason that upending our daily lives by blocking Oxford Circus or disrupting the transport network will cause such frustration that the public will support the government pursuing a more radical climate policy, if only so they can get back to travelling around without placards and protestors.

Whether this will work I’m not so sure. Despite the recent soothing advice from the Tony Blair Foundation that net zero can be achieved with minimal lifestyle change, ministers are only too well aware that the next stages of net zero action won’t be popular. They will affect individual choices on issues which people feel are personal – what car they drive, how they heat their homes and who they let into their homes to insulate them. Voters may not like XR protests, but it’s not clear how much support there really is for such direct state intervention in daily life.

EIC members are crucial to solving the net zero challenges. Consultancies are doing innovative work using digital and visualisation tools to improve community engagement, while other members create technologies that can minimise the behavioural change required to decarbonize. But, in reality, environmental businesses are largely on the side lines of this three-way tussle between protestors, citizens and democratically elected politicians.

At the meeting itself, all those years ago, I had little to contribute to the back and forth between the NGO elite and No 10 officials. But it’s hard not to think that if we had started then to adopt the net zero focus that we have now, across mainstream business and government, we’d be in a much better position to stabilise our changing climate.

This blog originally appeared in Infrastructure Intelligence.

By |2021-09-17T19:28:18+01:00September 22nd, 2021|Staff posts|