Climate uprising sparks a bitter war of words

The reckoning: In London, activists targeted 12 sides including Westminster Bridge. © Getty

Are they heroes or “uncooperative crusties”, as Boris Johnson said? Climate protesters are blocking roads in 60 cities. They say our future is at stake, but their methods are deeply divisive.

The streets of London are paralysed. Bridges that connect the central arteries of the city are blocked by crowds. Protesters super-glue themselves to the ground, and chain their bodies to vehicles. By nightfall yesterday, on the first day of an international climate rebellion, 270 people had been arrested.

It is the work of Extinction Rebellion (XR), a non-violent climate protest group, which aims to force governments to take radical action to halt the climate crisis through civil disobedience. In London alone, 30,000 people are expected to take to the streets over the next 13 days. Similar demonstrations are expected across the globe.

“Life on Earth is in crisis: scientists agree we have entered a period of abrupt climate breakdown,” reads XR’s mission statement. “We are in the midst of a mass extinction of our own making.” The group is demanding that governments slash carbon emissions to net-zero by 2025.

Its controversial methods have split opinion broadly along political lines.

In The Telegraph yesterday, Charlotte Gill condemned XR’s actions as “vandalism, masquerading as environmentalism”, pointing out that, on Sunday, activists attempted to spray London’s historic Treasury with red paint. “Through its infantile, disruptive protests, XR is only achieving one thing, and that is the almost total alienation of the public,” she concluded.

In The Mail on Sunday, Douglas Murray wrote that the “fanatics of XR” are , by their refusal to acknowledge any view but their own deranged belief and their defiance of democratic norms, “authoritarian, even fascistic…Just who do they think they are?”.

But in The Guardian, Polly Toynbee argues that they are “deeply democratic” heroes. “Their ordinariness makes Extinction Rebellion especially effective: farmers, scientists, doctors, Cumbrians and other local platoons stand at the 12 key roadblocks.”

Her feelings are echoed by The Guardian columnist George Monbiot, who Tweeted last night: “I'm on the train to London to join the most important mobilisation of my lifetime. We face the greatest predicament humankind has ever encountered. And we must meet it with the biggest movement there has ever been.”

Paint the town red

He is clearly right, many agree. There are two issues: the science on climate crisis and how we should respond to it. It is hard to oppose the science without being ignorant — 97% of climate scientists now agree about man-made global warming. As for the response, XR is an extreme movement because political leaders have spent 30 years failing to make any difference.

Quite the opposite, goes the rival argument. Even if the science is exactly as XR claims it is, it does not follow that the group’s draconian solutions are correct. In fact, the answers it does offer are the worst ones possible, the equivalent of urging people to avoid death by old age by shooting ourselves now. It blames “capitalism” in particular, betraying the fact that many of its global-warming ideologues are from the extreme left. XR, and those like it, ask that we should trust its claims and then volunteer to become immeasurably poorer. How it will persuade the world’s biggest polluters, such as China, to agree to this plan, nobody can say.

You Decide

  1. Do you support Extinction Rebellion?
  2. Are we out of time to stop the climate crisis?


  1. Write a short poem that could be read aloud at an Extinction Rebellion protest.
  2. Hold a class debate on the motion: “We should all march with Extinction Rebellion”. Choose a speaker and a seconder both for and against the motion. Vote at the end for who made the strongest case.

Some People Say...

“It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.”

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), US writer and philosopher

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Extinction Rebellion (XR), the climate action group, has declared a two-week International Rebellion. It is calling on people to engage in non-violent civil disobedience to pressure politicians to take concrete action on climate crisis. The disorder has spread to 60 cities across the world including London, Berlin, New York and Sydney. XR says the action will be five times bigger than previous protests in April.
What do we not know?
Whether the rebellion will work. Despite 200 governments signing up to the Paris Agreement to keep global heating below 2C, and the UK Labour Party’s commitment to meet the net-zero target by 2030, politicians are failing to explain exactly how they will realise these laudable aims.

Word Watch

Civil disobedience
When you refuse to comply with certain laws as a form of political protest.
When a society produces only as much carbon as it eliminates. For example, through planting trees.
Attempted to
The stunt went awry when the activists lost control of the hose, so most of the “fake blood” went on the pavement. They carried a banner reading: “Stop funding climate death”.
Feeling detached from something; failing to empathise.
The 16-year-old started going on a climate strike from school every Friday to protest outside the Swedish parliament, and came to international attention. Just last month, millions marched in a climate protest that Thunberg led from New York.
XR protesters say they will move aside to let ambulances attend emergencies.


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