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As climate protests return to London streets, what does Extinction Rebellion want?

by Laurie Goering and Megan Rowling | @lauriegoering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 26 August 2021 16:55 GMT

Demonstrators hold placards during an Extinction Rebellion climate activists' protest, at Oxford Circus, in London, Britain, August 25, 2021. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

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After a coronavirus hiatus, climate activists restarted mass protests this month, with a fresh focus on ending fossil fuel investments and sparking 'crisis talks' with the public

LONDON, Aug. 26 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - With coronavirus pandemic restrictions relaxed, Extinction Rebellion climate change activists revived major street protests in London this week, targeting in particular the city's financial industry and the fossil fuel companies they fund.

After a pause of more than 18 months, activists staged a die-in near Parliament, hung a protest banner at the Guildhall home of the City of London Corporation and set up a giant pink table for climate "crisis talks" in Oxford Circus, blocking roads.

The protests - which follow the launch of a hard-hitting global climate science report in August, dubbed by the U.N. chief as a "code red" for humanity - have drawn thousands of participants each day, news agencies reported.

In 2019, the UK government was the first G7 country to set a goal in law to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 in the wake of Extinction Rebellion's initial major London protests that year.

That has since led to similar pledges by more than 50 governments and thousands of businesses.

However, the Climate Crisis Advisory Group, which brings together prominent international scientists, warned this week that 2050 net-zero targets would not be sufficient to avoid large-scale disasters driven by climate change around the world.

Extinction Rebellion, which aims to use peaceful mass civil disobedience to drive change, has seen thousands of activists arrested and convicted for blocking roads and other offenses during previous protests, with hundreds arrested this week.

As evidence of climate threats grows - alongside police efforts to control protests - Extinction Rebellion UK activists have adapted both their aims and their tactics, members say.

Here's what the latest large-scale street protests, set to last for at least two weeks from Aug. 23, are all about:

What do Extinction Rebellion activists want?

The movement's key demands are that governments tell the truth about a growing "climate emergency", act on it now and set up a meaningful citizens' assembly to guide climate action - but activists say they've seen limited effort on all three.

As disasters linked to extreme weather - from wildfires to floods - surge around the world, "there's more acknowledgement generally we're in an emergency, which is positive", said Nuala Lam, an Extinction Rebellion (XR) spokesperson.

But too few people yet understand the direct threats they face - whether from disasters themselves or fallout such as food shortages and disrupted transport, she said, making it harder for them to vote effectively or join protests.

With a British proposal to open a new coal mine still on the cards and the government funding oil expansion despite a pledge to slash climate-damaging emissions 78% by 2035, swift enough climate action "is not happening", Lam added.

Britain's government did run a citizens' climate assembly in early 2020, seeking guidance on how to reduce emissions.

But it was not allowed to question the 2050 deadline for net-zero emissions and some key recommendations - such as a tax on frequent fliers - have not been put in place, Lam said.

Tim Crosland, a former barrister and Extinction Rebellion member, said the government should be holding "crisis talks" on fast-rising climate risks - but without those, participants in the London protests would invite the public to join their own.

Are there any new demands from this round of protests?

Activists want an immediate end to all new funding for fossil fuels, not just coal but oil and natural gas too.

"It's one of the least radical things we've done. The International Energy Agency is saying the same thing," Lam said.

If the UK government, which will host the COP26 U.N. climate negotiations this November, were to agree, "they could get us off the streets immediately. We would call it off," she added.

Why do Extinction Rebellion activists block traffic and cause disruption in public places?

Those tactics are a way to draw broader attention to climate change threats and put pressure on officials for change, the movement's backers say.

"The core of XR is mass participation and civil disobedience, large numbers of people being willing to break the law because they think the matter is that serious," Lam said.

But activists said they would not target public transport this time as in the past, when some activists glued themselves to trains - a controversial step even among movement members.

How are police responding to the protests?

The UK government has asked police to step up efforts to curb public disruption and introduced a new policing and security bill that, if passed, could restrict demonstrations.

That has forced a change in tactics by Extinction Rebellion activists, who once shared their protest plans publicly and with police but now have to keep them quiet, Lam said.

That poses a challenge because "we want to be as accessible to the climate-concerned public as we can", she added.

Why are the protests targeting the financial industry?

London's big banks and other financiers are important conduits of money to fossil fuel companies, whose products are the largest contributors to climate-heating emissions.

"If the City of London (financial district) were a country it would be the ninth-biggest emitter - that's how much investment and power it has in terms of... fossil fuels," said Anneka Sutcliffe, an Extinction Rebellion organiser.

Crosland said financial backing from London supported about 15% of the global fossil fuel industry.

Will post-lockdown protests be as big as before?

News agencies and activists have reported thousands of people turning up for the latest Extinction Rebellion London protests - fewer than the 10,000-20,000 at the peak in 2019 but enough to put them among the largest since the end of lockdown.

Growing weather disasters and mounting science warnings are helping drive concern and draw in more activists, Lam said, noting 40% of people signed up for the new round of London protests had not participated before.

Extinction Rebellion raised £100,000 ($137,000) in a single-day push to support its current actions, she said.

Paul Stephens, a Metropolitan Police detective sergeant-turned-activist, said he did not think the government's proposed policing bill and broader crackdown would deter most protesters.

"They realise there are sections of our society that are delaying the mitigation of climate change for profit and there is nothing you can do, apart from get out on the streets and try to send a message that we are not going to tolerate that, in a peaceful way," he said.  

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As coronavirus limits climate protests, activists go online

Climate activists to emerge stronger from coronavirus crisis, Greta Thunberg says

(Reporting by Laurie Goering @lauriegoering, additional reporting by Megan Rowling ; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)