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The problem with Extinction Rebellion

XR activists blockaded the printworks, and impeded delivery of the weekend newspapers. David Toube, Director of Policy at the counter-extremist group, Quilliam, has this to say.

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.

Human Extinction?

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.

Final thoughts

There are other criticisms that should be made of XR’s demands. The proposal to create a Citizens 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

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David Toube

David Toube is Director of Policy at Quilliam. David was educated at Southampton University and at Brasenose College, Oxford, and is a barrister by training. He taught law at Queen Mary University of London, and then practiced law for 25 years, where he headed the European bank regulatory practice of a prominent international law firm. David has been active in counter-extremism activism and writing for fifteen years, and has written for The Guardian, the Spectator, the New Statesman and other news outlets, and has appeared widely on current affairs television programmes. His focus is on far Left, far Right and Islamist extremism, and on polarisation and conspiracism within political culture.

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  1. Hi David,
    You seem to be cherry-picking the most extreme sound-bites from the media and applying them to the whole movement without context. You seem to be looking for problems rather than to paint a rounded picture. I’d recommend Nafeez Ahmed’s article for a more nuanced critique: Here are a few specific points.

    Here’s a good summary of the most recent science that XR is following, as reviewed by XR Scientists:

    3.5% is an aspiration for the movement when it was much much smaller than today. I’d say we’ve been phasing out the talk of 3.5%, with more recognition that we need to also persuade the broader public of the dangers of the Climate Emergency.. Whether it’s a particular tipping point, if we had 3.5% of the population in active rebellion that would be incredibly powerful.

    We have a lot of internal discussion about how much disruption is warranted/justified by the catastrophic impacts that the Climate and Ecological Emergency is already having, and the worse impacts that are to come. Any XR action has to fit with the principles and values, key of which is non-violence as an active state. We already self-regulate a lot (which is a big source of frustration for some).

    Obviously XR shouldn’t be involved in the formation of a Citizens Assembly. XR isn’t asking to be the facilitators of any Citizens Assembly. It would need to be formed by an independent body. The process for that is well defined and uncontroversial. The best description I’ve seen for the process (and the mitigation of biases) is outlined here:

    You describe the “eradication of white supremacy, patriarchy, Eurocentrism, heteronormativity, and class hierarchy” as cranky rhetoric. Without speaking for Stuart I’d suggest that these aim that they describe apply particularly to the way we want to interact as rebels, in our interpersonal relations and the way that we want to interact with the world. Extinction Rebellion aims to offer spaces that are welcoming to all, and to actively unpack the many oppressions that exist in our society. Certainly, as an organisation and individually we all have a lot to improve on this front, but it seems an unequivocal good. Perhaps that is the most radical thing we do?

  2. I appreciate the criticism of XR because, while like you said theyve moved the overtom windown and all that is great stuff, but there wording was off putting to me. I was at some of the protests last year, and i sat down to listen to the induction chat and be inducted. I left pretty sharply after hearing something. Cant remember what it was.

    I didn’t really understand your (nordhaus) point about 3.5 degrees warming being economically balanced. Thats the first time ive read that. My understanding of the point is – because carbon is important in raising people out of poverty then it should be used all the way up untill of average the cost of the damage done by the carbon outweighs the benefits of burning it.
    1. that seems so supremely utilitarian
    2. Electricity is now cheaper being produced by renewables. So how does that fit into Nordhaus model? it seems to be an either or model. he must have calculated using historical carbon data and economic growth and decreases in poverty. But that assumes the past is the correct and only way of reducing poverty and increasing welfare. It seems like we can actually be more ambitious than having 3.5 degrees warming and all the environmental and human cost and benefit that implies – if we worked on poverty in better ways than is the current status quo – like reducing inequality for example.

    Also on XR – I find it interesting that some people find the hippie culture of XR as off putting – even if they also are concerned about the environment.

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