Climate change group disavows disruptive protests, but other activists vow to soldier on

Extinction Rebellion has made a New Year's resolution to stop blocking traffic, but other radical climate action groups, like Just Stop Oil, will keep at it.

A female activist from the Extinction Rebellion lies in front of a car with her straw hat on the ground and a poster lying by her saying: I'm here because this is an Emergency. Two rows of London police officers in lime-green harnesses stand parallel to the vehicle.
Activists from the Extinction Rebellion glued and chained themselves to a car as part of a protest in central London on April 16, 2022. (Henry Nicholls/Reuters)

Extinction Rebellion, the U.K.-based organization that pioneered disruptive climate change protests such as sit-ins at major London traffic circles, has made a New Year’s resolution to give up such tactics and focus instead on increasing support for the climate movement.

In a Dec. 31, 2022, statement on its website, the group acknowledged that despite garnering media attention for high-profile protests — including blockading five bridges on the River Thames in central London in November 2018 — its efforts have not led to a significant change in the trajectory of planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions.

“When XR burst onto the scene four years ago, few could have imagined the seismic shift it would bring about in the climate movement, the climate conversation, and the world at large,” the group wrote, referring to itself by the nickname XR. “But despite the blaring alarm on the climate and ecological emergency ringing loud and clear, very little has changed. Emissions continue to rise and our planet is dying at an accelerated rate.”

Police officers try to remove Etienne Stott, a former Olympian, and other activists from Extinction Rebellion who occupied an oil tanker during a protest.
Police officers try to remove activists from Extinction Rebellion who occupied an oil tanker during a protest in London on April 16, 2022, calling for an end to fossil fuels. (Henry Nicholls/Reuters)

The group has concluded that a new strategy is needed, one that it hopes will encourage a broader swath of the public to engage in activism for action to address climate change.

“As we ring in the new year, we make a controversial resolution to temporarily shift away from public disruption as a primary tactic,” the statement from XR said. “We recognise and celebrate the power of disruption to raise the alarm and believe that constantly evolving tactics is a necessary approach. What’s needed now most is to disrupt the abuse of power and imbalance, to bring about a transition to a fair society that works together to end the fossil fuel era.”

Extinction Rebellion activists dressed as Santa Claus sit on the Boulevard Saint-Germain under a banner saying: Stop Ecocide..
Extinction Rebellion activists dressed as Santa Claus sit on the Boulevard Saint-Germain in Paris, outside the Ministry for the Ecological Transition, on Dec. 6, 2022. (Anna Kurth/AFP via Getty Images)

The group cast the pivot as a “radical” approach, rather than a turn toward moderation.

“We must be radical in our response to this crisis and determined in our efforts to address the climate and ecological emergency, even if it means taking a different approach than before. In a time when speaking out and taking action are criminalised, building collective power, strengthening in number and thriving through bridge-building is a radical act.”

In the last year, several new youth-led groups around the world have employed tactics pioneered by XR, especially in Britain and Europe. For example, the group Just Stop Oil, which was founded in February 2022, blocked traffic on highways in London and garnered international coverage and criticism for throwing tomato soup at a painting by Vincent Van Gogh in London’s National Gallery. In late October, activists from a group called Last Generation threw mashed potatoes at a painting by Claude Monet and glued themselves to the adjacent wall at the Museum Barberini in Potsdam, Germany, and carried out similar actions in other European museums.

Just Stop Oil responded to XR’s announcement on Monday with a pledge to continue engaging in what it called “civil resistance.”

“It’s 2023 and XR has quit,” Just Stop Oil wrote in a statement. “But it’s 2023, and we are barrelling down the highway to the loss of ordered civil society, as extreme weather impacts tens of millions, as our country becomes unrecognisable. … We must move from disobedience into civil resistance.”

The statement went on to invoke the ongoing health care workers’ strike that has rocked the British National Health Service. “This is what the nurses and paramedics are doing,” Just Stop Oil wrote. “They are on the frontline of the harm being wreaked on us and have said no more.”

Another group, Insulate Britain, also reiterated its commitment to civil disobedience. “Insulate Britain supporters remain committed to civil resistance as the only appropriate and effective response to the reality of our situation in 2023,” its statement read. “In the UK right now, nurses, ambulance drivers and railway workers are on strike because they understand that public disruption is vital to demand changes that governments are not willing or are too scared to address.”

Activists kneel under Van Gogh's painting inside a velvet rope with their left hands behind their back stuck to the wall below it. One holds an open can of soup.
Activists of Just Stop Oil glue their hands to the wall after throwing soup at Vincent van Gogh's painting "Sunflowers" at the National Gallery in London on Oct. 14, 2022. (Just Stop Oil/Handout via Reuters)

Polls have shown that law-breaking protests such as highway sit-ins and symbolic smearing of paintings — all the targeted paintings are covered by glass and were unharmed — do not go over well with the public.

In November, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania conducted a survey of 1,000 Americans that showed 46% of respondents say these disruptive tactics “decrease their support for efforts to address climate change,” while only “13% report increasing support.”

Critics of the survey pointed out that a recent online poll found that two-thirds of Britons polled support “taking nonviolent direct action to protect the UK’s nature.” But a 2019 YouGov poll found 54% of the public opposed Extinction Rebellion’s protests that aimed to “shut down London,” as opposed to 36% who supported it.

Michael Mann, a professor of earth and environmental science at Penn and a co-author of the recent study, welcomed XR’s New Year’s resolution.

“I really appreciate the passion and energy behind Extinction Rebellion,” Mann wrote in an email to Yahoo News. “They’re a key ally in the battle for climate action, and I think it’s thoughtful of them to continually reevaluate [their] strategy as they work toward that common goal we all share.”

Drips of yellow paint deface an arched door on the walls of the Bank of England, with another arch sprayed with: Just Stop Oil.
Yellow paint sprayed on the walls of the Bank of England by members of the group Just Stop Oil in London on Oct. 31, 2022. (Richard Baker/Getty Images)

In its statement, XR pointed to a planned protest for April 21, in which it hopes to bring 100,000 people to gather outside the Houses of Parliament and call for “​​a fair society and a citizen-led end to the fossil fuel era.”

“Gathering at the Houses of Parliament day after day in large numbers means we can leave the locks, glue and paint behind and instead demonstrate faith in a critical mass of people to create a moment that’s impossible to ignore,” says the group’s website for the upcoming protest.

Mann said that events such as this, which target legislators and others with the power to change energy and environmental policy such as fossil fuel companies, are more effective than actions that harm the public at large or unrelated institutions such as museums.

“While disruptive protests do play an important role in all social movements, it’s critical that pressure campaigns target those most responsible—fossil fuel companies and their abettors, i.e. right wing fossil fuel-funded politicians, front groups and media outlets that continue to do their bidding,” Mann wrote. “In short, we need to take the fight directly to the enemy.”