NOTE: First published in September, 2020.
If you didn’t get your morning paper yesterday, you have XR to thank for that…
Since its October 2018 ‘Declaration of Rebellion’, Extinction Rebellion (XR) has been at the centre of a blossoming environmentalist movement. It has unified left wing activists, veteran Green campaigners, anxious schoolchildren, and concerned parents. The movement’s founders, former organic farmer Roger Hallam, bushcraft instructor Simon Bramwell, and biophysicist Gail Bradbrook, hope that XR will be able to force the government into ending what they see as a climate “genocide”. If you didn’t get your morning paper yesterday, you have XR to thank for that.
There are issues with XR’s analysis, methodology and message. There is a thesis, to which I do not subscribe, that even if all of these criticisms are correct, that at least they have put climate change on the agenda, and that they have moved the Overton Window in the right direction. There is a common-sense answer to this argument: if neutral people come to regard a movement’s claims as over the top, they will be more inclined to dismiss even an accurate assessment of the problem.
But, more fundamentally, it is important to tell the truth in politics.
XR starts from the premise that climate change is likely to bring about “human extinction through climate change”. At the core of their ideology is an understanding of climate change as “an unprecedented global emergency”. This theme of “a life or death situation”, a “Sixth Mass Extinction”, and a catastrophic “climate and ecological emergency” is constantly repeated in their speeches, on marches, and in articles.
The presentation of climate change as an incomparable threat to human survival is the foundation of their messaging and serves as the fundamental justification for their subsequent activism. In the words of their co-founder, Roger Hallam – who has now apparently left XR – Climate change “is 12 times worse than the horror of Nazism and Fascism in the Twentieth Century”.
At the root of XR’s error is their misunderstanding of the consequences of climate change. It is possible, but very unlikely, that climate change will result in human extinction.
XR accept the understanding of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of what various levels of climate warming will entail. However, they fail to translate that diagnosis into human impact, in a manner supported by economic analyses of climate change.
Whilst the damage caused by a rise in sea levels, more frequent extreme weather events, regular droughts, and food shortages is significant, it is not generally accepted that it will result in 6 billion deaths, as Roger Hallam has claimed. Rather, comprehensive metastudies of the economic impact of climate change assesses the damage at a worst case 17.5% decrease in human welfare at 5 °C and a worse case 12% decrease in human welfare at the more realistic 3.5 °C. Whilst this harm is significant and absolutely must be addressed, it would result in a somewhat slower annual rate of global growth, rather than XR’s apocalyptic predictions.
Misuse of the “Precautionary Principle”
At XR meetings I have attended and in their literature, the movement focuses on what they call ‘The Precautionary Principle’. By that term, XR believes that where there is a lack of scientific information that would determine the risk of a bad outcome, aggravating action must be avoided to the greatest extent possible. XR puts the argument as follows:
“[W]here there are serious and irreversible risks, it is unwise to wait until all the evidence is in before acting strongly to head off those risks”
XR’s understanding of the Precautionary Principle is central to its belief that we are facing the possibility of human extinction. Even in the absence of scientific evidence qualifying the risk of such extinction, the existence of any such risk justifies all preventative action.
The Precautionary Principle comes in two forms: strong and weak. The strong version holds that where any risk of damage is present, all aggravating activities should cease. The weak form dictates that precautions should first be evaluated by a cost-benefit analysis: weighing up the risk of the outcome materialising against the costs of preventative action. It is this second form which XR entirely disregards.
This misanalysis has significant implications. A solution is only valuable when it causes less harm than the problem it is attempting to solve.
The primary cause of suffering occasioned by climate change is poverty. Accordingly, any measures that are designed to address the impact of climate change should seek to minimise that economic impact. XR’s policy constitutes a catastrophic overshoot because it is based upon a Precautionary Principle which seeks to prevent a remote prospect of human extinction, but would deliver economic collapse.
Put simply, XR’s proposals would result in greater poverty and a larger number of deaths than those that would occur under more generally accepted studies of the consequences of unaddressed climate change.
XR’s analysis can usefully be contrasted with mainstream environmental economics studies. The economist, William Nordhaus, who won a Nobel Prize for his work in this field, estimates that the “socially optimal maximum” for climate change would be a ceiling of 3.5°C. At this optimal point, each tonne of carbon dioxide can be considered to have an ‘implied social cost’ of $44. He calculates that a ceiling of 2.5°C would require an implied social cost of $284, and an even more radical 1.5°C, would require an implied cost of up to $5500. It follows that carbon dioxide would need to cause damage to human welfare equal to $5500 per tonne in order to justify even Extinction Rebellion’s most conservative desired temperature limit. This would constitute a 125 times overestimate of its real harm.
The problem with decentralisation
XR is non-hierarchical and decentralised. It is essentially a participatory organisation. So, whatever activists want to do which they think is necessary to further XR’s principles, they do. As Charlotte Haigh notes, that included the dangerous Canning Town train stunt that most members opposed. Last year, various activists from an XR “splinter group”, including Roger Hallam, attempted to conduct dangerous drone disruptions of major airports. The drone campaign was prevented only by their arrest.
The problem is this. The apocalyptic framing of the climate change dilemma, the presentation of XR’s opponents as supporters of a “genocidal government”, and the glorification of activists participating in direct action, creates an environment which encourages ever more extreme forms of activism. The absence of hierarchy means that there is nothing that other XR members can do to stop them.
In effect, XR are relying on the police and security services to stop their members doing stupid and dangerous things.
XR’s theory of change is misapplied.
XR believes that by recruiting 2.2 million protestors, or 3.5% of the British population, the implementation of their goals will be irresistible. However, this belief is rooted in a significant misunderstanding of the underlying social science. XR often cites Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan’s influential study into the success of non-violent movements. They argue that the study indicates that any demands presented by protestors will inevitably be met at a tipping point of about 3.5% of the population.
However, this reading of the study fundamentally misunderstands a crucial point: it is not a study of system change, but of regime change.
Almost all cases examined in the study see a frustrated population toppling a tyrannical regime and implementing either a freer or more democratic political system. This goal differs radically from XR which, instead of demanding the simple replacement of a leader or a government, insist on the wholesale stripping down and destruction of some of the most economically valuable institutions in modern society. Furthermore, of the 323 examples of mass movements considered by the study, none involved the defeat of a liberal Western democracy, and almost none were successful against democratic governments.
In other words, XR have misapplied to Western liberal democracies a data set involving political campaigns against non-democratic regimes, pursuing a radically different set of objectives.
There are other criticisms that should be made of XR’s demands. The proposal to create a Citizen’s Assembly, employing sortition to select members, really depends on whether members are led by reputable environmental economists like Nordhaus, or hysterical demagogic figures, such as Roger Hallam.
I also have concerns about the cranky rhetoric of XR members in relation to the movement’s goals. Stuart Basden, a founding member of XR, characterised the movement as a campaign for the wholesale political and economic reorientation of society:
“Extinction Rebellion isn’t about the climate. It’s not even about ‘climate justice’”, it is about the eradication of white supremacy, patriarchy, Eurocentrism, heteronormativity, and class hierarchy.”
However, my fundamental objection to XR mirrors their first demand: tell the truth.
Photo credit: Sky News