How far is far enough in a climate emergency?

Extinction Rebellion is committed to non-violent uprising in the face of climate change. For now.

How far is far enough in a climate emergency?

Extinction Rebellion is committed to non-violent uprising in the face of climate change. For now.

The world is on fire and no one in power seems able to do anything about it. Natural disasters come in ever greater frequency and intensity, while “climate refugee” is no longer a notional term. Irreversible feedback loops, scientists warn, are rapidly approaching. We have 12 years — or maybe only 18 months. The crisis is already here. We are living the reality of climate change.

Politically, it seems we have two options; there is no longer any suitable centrist response to catastrophic climate change. On the far right is an emerging eco-fascism — a grim, selfish ideology that calls for hoarding resources, building walls to keep out refugees, and using brutal force to retain order as the world’s multiplying problems are consigned away as someone else’s responsibility. On the left, there is the possibility of what is optimistically described as eco-socialism — a drastic and immediate move toward a carbon-neutral society, with all of the redistribution of wealth and national priorities that entails.

But according to some front-line activists, in order to achieve the fundamental reordering of society needed to survive the climate crisis, a broader uprising is necessary. We must turn to direct action and disrupt the normal order of things. That’s the motto of groups like the Sunrise Movement, the youth-led climate campaigners who in November 2018 camped outside Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s office, with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez there offering support. As they and other student strikers like Greta Thunberg argue, we must refuse to do what’s expected of us. It must be, says Extinction Rebellion (XR), one of the fastest growing climate action groups, a full-scale revolt against a political class that won’t or can’t do what’s necessary.

What that rebellion might look like is the question hovering over climate justice groups heading into a time of deepening crisis. Despite a growing public consensus over climate change, President Trump is content to lie, defang environmental regulations, and give a free hand to industry to build more fossil-fuel infrastructure. Some Democratic party members banged the drum for the Green New Deal — a massive jobs and infrastructure program that failed to advance in the Senate in a March vote — but the party’s feckless leadership offers a reminder that there is no climate savior in the political class. What then do we do? Can a mass movement of nonviolent protest shift the Overton window enough to provoke real political change?

London. November 17, 2018

London. November 17, 2018

Extinction Rebellion says it has the answer. On October 7, the organization plans to stage a series of protests in a number of major European and American cities. “October 7 is going to be the largest direct action in world history,” Gregory Schwedock, an early member of XR’s NYC chapter, told me over the phone. Although vague on details, Schwedock, 31, hopes that protesters will turn out en masse and shut down cities like Amsterdan and Paris for days, as XR protesters did in London earlier this year. The sense of ambition is matched by the utter seriousness of the moment.

“Be part of history,” Schwedock said. “Be able to tell your grandkids that you were there when the Western world was put on notice.”

Inspired as much as by the failures of past climate activist movements as their successes, Extinction Rebellion formed in 2018 in the United Kingdom. Roger Hallam, a King’s College political scientist who, in writings and speeches, has helped lay out strategy for a direct-action climate campaign, is credited as one of the cofounders, along with Gail Bradbrook, a molecular biophysicist who has said she was moved during a psychedelic trip to do something about the climate crisis. In October 2018, XR announced itself with the publication of a letter, signed by 94 British academics, declaring “a moral duty… to rebel to defend life itself.” The newly formed XR soon held a number of actions, including summoning thousands of people to shut down traffic throughout London and other British cities. (Bradbrook continues to argue for the ingestion of psychedelics as a form of protest against the criminalization of drugs.)

Relying largely on crowd-founding, non-hierarchical organizing, and the connections afforded by existing activist networks, XR quickly established chapters in dozens of cities throughout the world. (The New York City chapter has 5,000 people on its mailing list, with a dedicated core of 200 volunteers.) Believing that climate change is already here, with its effects deeply felt, XR wishes to communicate a sense of urgency. It has several demands, such as that governments “tell the truth” about the severity of the climate crisis by declaring a climate emergency �� a rhetorical gesture meant to put more pressure on governments to implement climate-friendly legislation. They also want a rapid move to reduce emissions to zero by 2025 and the formation of people’s assemblies, which would help craft and enact climate justice policies. They want a swift realignment of our economic, political, and environmental priorities, and they want it immediately — for them, time has already run out.

The group is resolutely non-violent, though its members sometimes waffle on the question of whether that includes property damage.

XR employs many familiar direct-action strategies that activists use: blocking roads, marching with signs and bullhorns, die-ins. In July, members of the Washington, D.C. chapter glued themselves to one another and planted themselves in front of offices on Capitol Hill, with the intention of forcing legislators to talk to them (most passing politicos, according to The Intercept, simply walked around the protestors). XR has also piggybacked on existing media coverage, staging protests during events like the MTV Video Music Awards and London Fashion Week.

The group is resolutely non-violent, though its members sometimes waffle on the question of whether that includes property damage. (One can increasingly find the XR logo — an hourglass indicating that time is not on our side — spray-painted across various major American cities.) For now, to keep protests in check, the group employs de-escalation tactics, with specific XR members deputized to calm down rowdy group members or angry members of the public inconvenienced by an XR spectacle. Other XR members are assigned to act as liaisons with police (everyone else is encouraged not to talk to police).

A college physics major who then worked for a few years as a software engineer and founded an anti-factory farming organization, Schwedock has become perhaps the most visible face of XR NYC. He is one of the group’s handful of “climbers,” who scale buildings and public structures to unfurl massive banners declaring climate emergency. In January, as part of a call for a climate “rebellion,” he repelled down the Prometheus statue in Rockefeller Plaza, and in June, he climbed the awning of the New York Times Building to protest the paper’s climate coverage. Schwedock’s activism has roots in the Occupy movement — he was one of more than 700 people arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge on October 1, 2011 — and the Keystone Pipeline protests in 2016 and 2017. In 2014, he joined The Climate Mobilization movement, a group that advocates for a World War II-style economic effort to battle climate change; while there he worked on organizing, strategy, and, as he described it, a little bit of everything else. Raised in New York, he is now a full-time climate activist. (He declined to explain how he supports himself except to acknowledge that he is “very privileged.”)

Climbing buildings represents XR’s developing style of activism — at once playful, angry, and provocative toward its putative allies. On the day Schwedock climbed the Times building, a few hundred activists met in Bryant Park and then made their way, bullhorns in hand and police escort at their side, to the newspaper’s headquarters, where they began protesting what they claimed was the paper’s insufficiently alarmist coverage of the climate crisis. Schwedock was already there, along with two other activists, Yurié Collins and Niklas Moran. The three of them had hoisted themselves on top of the building’s glass and steel awning. Wearing climbing equipment, they calmly walked back and forth, preparing to unfurl a huge banner meant to look like a Times headline, which read, “Climate change = mass murder,” with “change” crossed out and replaced with “emergency.”

Another team unfurled a banner across the street at the Port Authority that read “Climate Emergency.” XR activists chanted slogans — “Report the urgency! This is a climate emergency!” ��� and cheered them on. Cops threatened arrests for anyone who stayed in the street. (Sixty-three people would eventually be arrested.) Times reporters, visibly confused, stared out their office windows, while a few tweeted miffed defenses of the paper’s climate coverage. Eventually, the banner being hung on the Times building dipped on one end, and police managed to pull it down, deflating the action’s spirit. An NYPD emergency services team arrived, ascended the awning, and arrested the trio of climbers without incident. The whole thing lasted less than an hour.

As for why XR chose the Times as their target of protest— and not, say, a more sinister foe like ConEd or a fossil-fuel company — Schwedock told me, “There’s a rule in lobbying: you spend the most time on your allies.” XR UK had done something similar, protesting Greenpeace in an early action, challenging the more established environmental group to think beyond its traditional strategies. The two groups later held a climate march together, and Greenpeace published an article lauding XR as “politically and scientifically sophisticated, armed with clear principles and strong research regarding the state of Earth’s ecosystems.” Regarding the Times, Schwedock said, the paper’s climate coverage wasn’t commensurate with the direness of the moment. “They should have a banner headline every day.”

Rather than public apathy or insufficient media interest, the biggest challenge facing XR is law enforcement. Some XR activists have already been arrested three or more times, and though they are only given violations — which require them to appear a month or two later in court, when the violation is usually dismissed — repeated arrests could lead to more serious charges, although no protesters have faced anything more than a misdemeanor. After the stunt at the Times building, Schwedock, Moran, and Collins were held overnight at the forbidding Manhattan Detention Center, otherwise known as “the Tombs.”

At their initial arraignment, Schwedock, Collins, and Moran were charged with several misdemeanors; at a later hearing their lawyer, Wylie Stecklow, a civil rights attorney, talked the district attorney down to disorderly conduct, which is a violation and not a crime. The trio, who raised $2,200 to pay for their defense, would have to do one day of community service. (“He did amazing work,” Collins said of Stecklow. “We’re very fortunate.”)

There’s concern among XR members about undercover police attending their meetings and infiltrating the group, but given its interest in maintaining openness and accessibility, such a scenario may be impossible to avoid. XR members speak vaguely of compartmentalization — adopting a “need to know” information policy — and urge the use of Signal, the encrypted messaging app, but their op-sec doesn’t extend much beyond that. The planned October 7 rally, for example, is far from secret, though some of its details — where protesters will mobilize, which public spaces they plan to disrupt, etc — appear to be closely held. But these may be the necessary trade-offs for rapidly growing a movement. (In the UK, a more draconian state response may also be looming; one nonviolent XR activist, after telling doctors about his intent to be arrested at a protest, was reported to counter-terrorism police. Policy Exchange, a prominent British think tank, has already issued a report describing XR UK as extremists requiring a more “proactive” police response.)

A related question looming over XR is: Will they escalate their tactics? Will unfurling large banners and obstructing traffic (with the cooperation of police) shift to property damage, unsanctioned marches, or storming coal mines? Some XR leaders broach this issue carefully, acknowledging that they don’t support property damage for its own sake — at one nonviolent direct-action training, Schwedock expressed interest in using washable paint to graffiti the XR logo — but they note that that could change. They hint at a forthcoming escalation, one justified by the scale and scope of the present emergency. Schwedock told me he admires the “valve turners,” activists who risk prison time by turning emergency shutoff valves on oil pipelines.“It’s always time for an escalation of tactics,” Schwedock told me. If that means property damage with a tactical purpose, he added, so be it.

Grief is a dominant emotion at XR events. Attendees are encouraged to talk about how the crisis is affecting them personally and how it exacerbates their feelings of political impotence.

XR seems mindful of using tactics that might potentially alienate a public that could be recruited to its cause. Believing in the power of direct action, the group wants to convert about 3.5 percent of the population, a tipping point seen by scholars like Erica Chenoweth as crucial for fomenting large social change. Public engagement is a key part of XR’s overall strategy; the group hosts regular lectures, publicized through paper flyers and an active digital media operation, about the science of the climate emergency and also conducts a weekly non-violent direct action (NVDA) training. (The main Extinction Rebellion accounts have about 269,000 followers on Twitter and 42,000 on YouTube.) Regular “welcome calls” and text messages keep members, or anyone interested in participating in the group, up to date. At the NVDA training I attended, in a Manhattan yoga studio with a crowd that trended toward young, cis, and white, attendees included a science teacher, a former Buddhist monk, and a recent graduate of an environmental policy program who seemed to be the most dour person in the room, claiming that political solutions had been exhausted and that most temperature-rise projections were in fact too low compared to what’s coming.

Outreach has proven essential to the group’s growth. One XR committee is tasked with speaking to strangers on the subway about the climate emergency. Like other XR engagements, these conversations are not just about recruiting like-minded activists. They are also about acknowledging the grief and anxiety that come with a rapidly deteriorating climate that we seem powerless to do anything about. Grief is a dominant emotion at XR events. In a sense it’s deliberately cultivated, with attendees encouraged to talk about how the crisis is affecting them personally and how it exacerbates their feelings of political impotence. This sense of mourning forms a kind of substrate from which spring the righteous, angry slogans of a potential revolution.

Eve Mosher is an artist who has worked on climate issues for 12 years, though she calls herself a “reluctant activist.” But that changed when she encountered Extinction Rebellion. “That’s the rebellion for me,” she decided. “That’s what I’ve been waiting for. It’s looking at systemic change.”

Mosher began working with XR earlier this year, starting in an arts role before becoming its media coordinator. “I’m really excited about what we’re doing, but it’s also really hard work. It’s always been really fast and really urgent,” she said. “There’s pros and cons to that. We’re responding to something that’s so urgent. We have to make decisions about this that are far-ranging or deep.”

Yurié Collins, who was arrested after helping unfurl a banner on the Times’ facade, is relatively new to climate activism. A 29-year old actress, she joined the group in April. Soon after, she participated in a die-in in front of City Hall that protested the proposed building of a sea wall that would mostly protect the financial district. That was Collins’ first arrest.

“It takes privilege to get arrested,” Collins acknowledged. “It’s strange, people thank you afterward and kind of praise you for it, but it felt really important to remember that choosing to get arrested is a privilege and not everybody will be able to engage with police in the same way that I was able to, based on this country’s police system being extremely violent toward black people and brown people.”

Indeed, XR is careful in apportioning out who is placed in harm’s way. Potential protesters are asked whether they are comfortable being arrested and those who say yes are placed in separate groups, where they might block traffic or participate in a die-in.

It’s precisely XR’s willingness to provoke arrests that has attracted some criticism from fellow travelers on the left. Over the summer, the anarchist-communist website Libcom.org published a lengthy critique that, among other offenses, charged XR with treating the police as “tactical allies.”

Michael Loadenthal, a professor of sociology at Miami University of Ohio who studies social movements and political violence, expressed similar sentiments. “I am strongly critical of using people as cannon fodder,” he said in an interview. “The idea of putting people in a specific place for mass arrest, I think, is problematic in a number of ways,” he continued, explaining that this tactic excludes marginalized people who can’t afford to pass through the court system. Loadenthal — who was one of the J20 protesters, a group of more than 200 people charged with felony rioting (and eventually acquitted) after Trump’s inauguration — cited pipeline protests in West Virginia and elsewhere as far more effective. “There are more strategic ways that you could stop the flow of capital and put leverage on these businesses” responsible for the climate crisis, he said.

Extinction Rebellion demonstration in Parliament Square, London.

Extinction Rebellion demonstration in Parliament Square, London.

Arrests remain central to XR’s strategy, but many other roles exist, from media coordinators to police liaisons to legal support teams who help out those arrested. Collins is part of XR NYC’s intersectionality working group. “We try to look at everything from an inclusivity viewpoint, making sure the movement is for everyone and by everyone,” she said. To that end, the group has found solidarity with immigration activists and the Indigenous Women’s March and has joined in their actions and protests.

For people like Collins, Mosher, and Schwedock, XR has become a driving force in their lives. They describe the movement as both all-consuming and the best chance yet to foment a necessary political shift. “I definitely speak to XR people every day,” Collins said. “The only option we have left is radical resistance and massive non-violent civil disobedience.”

XR already has some small victories under its belt, though whether they rise to the standard of the group’s expectations for itself is another matter. Less than a week after the New York Times action, the city of New York declared a climate emergency, becoming one of the largest cities in the world to do so. But if governments don’t follow climate emergency declarations with concrete steps toward carbon neutrality, then these resolutions are useless gestures. This summer, the New York State Assembly passed an act that calls for an 85 percent greenhouse gas reduction by 2050, decades after the targets set by XR and other activist groups.

It’s difficult to criticize climate activism as unrealistic, but it does seem somehow unlikely to imagine that a campaign of polite public protest will lead to people’s assemblies crafting policies that threaten some of the most well-heeled corporations on earth and their chosen representatives in public office. Capital has formidable instincts of self-preservation, and the nation’s heavily armed, surveillance-happy police forces will be all too willing to suppress protests that threaten the sanctity of the market. There is also the question of whether XR’s strategy will work.. As Michael Loadenthal, the scholar of environmentalist movements, told me, “There is no strategy in my mind which leads to changing policy in a meaningful way. Whereas if you block a pipeline for a year, it can become financially unfeasible for a company to continue.”

Extinction Rebellion’s relationship with police, which has been peaceful and even cooperative until now, is likely to change. Past environmental movements, especially those led by the black and brown activists who have long done this kind of work, have found themselves thoroughly infiltrated by the FBI and saddled with the label of ecoterrorists. The FBI has also maintained files on peaceful climate-change protesters affiliated with groups like 350.org. (A FOIA request submitted to the FBI for any files the Bureau has on XR turned up no responsive documents.) XR may aspire towards the Elysian beneficence of eco-socialism, but do they have the will to fight through the eco-fascist gatekeepers who would block the way?

XR activists are all too aware of the possible disappointments ahead. Roger Hallam, the British political theorist who’s played a leading role in XR, has prophesied a dire climatological future requiring a more extreme public response. Speaking to an Amnesty International audience in February, he promised to bring down governments that didn’t act on the crisis. Hallam, who has also called for hunger strikes, warned that “some may die in the process.”

Schwedock, while not of the same apocalyptic cast as Hallam, is also impatient for drastic action. In his opinion, the New York City climate emergency resolution, while a positive step, was far too watered down in its language. Instead of calling for an immediate move toward zero emissions, it gestured toward an economic transformation occurring over the next twelve years, as recommended by the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change (XR’s platform calls for such a shift to occur by 2025). But it was a start, however anemic, and in this time of acute crisis, Extinction Rebellion doesn’t hesitate to demand more. “XR is audacious,” Schwedock said. And with the fate of the world on the line, perhaps it has to be.

Jacob Silverman is the author of Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection.