Seven months into the wave of direct actions that have catapulted Extinction Rebellion (XR) into the headlines, The Environment finds Farhana Yamin in a sombre, questioning mood.
Yamin is an international lawyer, 30 years a veteran of top-level climate talks, an architect of the 2015 Paris Agreement. But in April, she superglued herself to the pavement outside energy giant Shell’s London headquarters to support XR’s climate protests.
That action identified Yamin – alongside biophysicist Gail Bradbrook and organic farmer Roger Hallam – as a leading figure in this leaderless movement. But when we meet at a quiet café near her North London home Yamin, fresh from the gym in burgundy sportswear, is questioning where she goes from here.
XR is the movement of the moment. Having gained low-key media coverage from a wave of street protests in November, it gripped the public imagination over Easter, when it mobilised thousands of activists to occupy four sites in central London.
Angrier, more traditional movements have generated hostile, if any, press. XR’s fluffy, smiley-face non-violent direct action has struck a chord. Easter’s rebellion charmed Middle England and the mainstream media, with its skateboarding police officers, its protesting grannies and pregnant women, and its Waterloo Bridge makeover, planting a peoples’ garden bridge.
At the height of the protests, Swedish activist Greta Thunberg stepped off the Eurostar at St Pancras to tell parliament why she’s been leading school-student climate strikes since last summer, in more than 70 countries, including the UK. That speech helped to fuse the two movements in the public imagination.
Although police arrested 1,130 protesters over Easter, two-thirds of the general public support XR’s aims. Even politicians seem to be listening. In her parting shot as prime minister, Theresa May pledged to leave the UK carbon-neutral by 2050 – a first for the G7 countries. The Welsh Assembly, then Scotland and MPs in Westminster have declared a climate emergency, inspiring their overseas counterparts in Ireland and Canada.
Yamin welcomes Theresa May’s announcement. “When I heard, I felt an enormous sense of pride,” she says. “No, of course it’s not enough. But so many people have worked so hard in the aftermath of the Paris Agreement – and it shows we’ve come a long way. Extinction Rebellion helped to fast-track it, to make a legacy issue for Theresa May.”
But having grabbed the world’s attention, the question is where XR goes from here, hence Yamin’s introspective mood. Answering that question is tricky, for a movement that wants to shatter politics-as-usual, that aims to replace charismatic party leadership with a grassroots movement of many voices, that is diverse and inclusive, in which all are equally heard.
The cracks started to show this summer. XR opposes London Heathrow’s proposed third runway. But activists’ proposal to launch drones to disrupt holiday traffic has split the movement, exposing a rift between those willing to risk terror charges that carry long prison terms and those who are not.
A mother of four, as well as an international public figure, Yamin absolutely is not. “There are risks worth taking and there is recklessness,” she says. “There’s a real danger that we alienate a lot of people – and I don’t want to be part of that. I signed up to do things that are visual and creative, a visionary way of working brings more people into our movement. Not for that.”
That row has left her questioning the tactics and strategies that will shape what XR does next – and her role in the movement.
The way the media tells it, Yamin quit her glittering 30-year legal career and ran off to join the climate-camp circus. That, she says, is not the story: “I’ve never abandoned the Paris Agreement – all I’ve said is that things were moving too slowly. That we need a worldwide rebellion to bring momentum to that change. And we’ve done it; we’ve smashed through the glass ceiling of indifference.”
In September, New York hosts a critical United Nations climate-action summit, ahead of this year’s conference of the parties (COP25) in Argentina and Costa Rica. The Paris Agreement commits governments to become carbon neutral by 2050. This autumn, every signatory must set out its short-term plans.
Far from walking away from international climate law, Yamin was taking time out this summer to recharge her batteries, to prepare two critical cases; a charter declaring universal rights for nature and a future-generations act, similar to the legislation that Wales passed in 2015, declaring the legal right to clean air, clean water and a habitable planet for citizens not yet born, fighting attempts by energy giants and other polluters to win immunity from future prosecutions.
Having stepped down as XR political co-ordinator, she wants the movement to flesh out a more detailed roadmap for change. As for regrets, she has very few. “XR has revived the notion of civil disobedience,” she says. “That’s been missing from the [mainstream] fight against climate change. Lots of groups were performing smaller-scale arrestable actions – to protest against fracking or airport expansion.
“Historically, Greenpeace staged large-scale interventions on board Rainbow Warrior, halting Arctic drilling, and so on. Maybe XR has given them a kick up the bum. What we’ve said is, let’s look at this as one big, interconnected problem. A lot of people have been very, very brave.
“What excites me is the thought that we can change the whole system, rather than approach this piece by piece. People have been afraid to say that the whole system needs to change. And that’s when XR came along.”
But stepping into the political landscape creates a dialectic – having come up from the streets, what is XR’s role within the mainstream? Having an online members list of 100,000 people raises questions about who belongs to the movement – about what belonging implies.
In June, Radiohead asked fans to donate to XR in return for downloading its latest album for free, after hackers tried to hold the material to ransom. That has contributed a reported £40,000 to the cause. By summer, the movement had raised more than £1 million, some from big-name donors, most of it from the general public.
And so, for its own credibility, XR must open itself to scrutiny – becoming professional and more transparent. “We all have to come to terms with what success brings,” Yamin says. “It raises all kinds of questions, about who and what we are. About accountability. About whether shutting down an airport is the right conversation for us to have. About what we want to be; are we a decentralised network, like Greenpeace? Are we a movement, like the Transition Towns? How do we want to engage people; through big headline events like Greenpeace, with its history of big, effective actions?
“We have to ask ourselves some tough questions, to work out where we fit – not least with all the other movements, that are seeking social justice, addressing human rights or inequality. We’re still too focused on our three – very narrowly framed – demands.”
The time has come to look in detail at how we tackle climate change, Yamin argues – something XR has shunned thus far, seeking points of consensus and to avoid “getting bogged down in detail”.
Yamin says the organisation must decide how best to empower citizens’ assemblies to deliver real momentum for change – whether to structure these nationally or locally. She wants it to campaign to grant the vote to sixteen-year-olds, she says, to empower those who will live with the consequences of climate change.
She also worries that XR – pumped up by its rapid successes – is doing too little to engage with and acknowledge the people and movements that came before. “It’s things like achieving a just transition [for depressed former industrial regions],” she says. “A lot of work has gone into that at international level – from the trade unions. People fought hard to include the language of just transition within the Paris Agreement.
“We have opportunities to form progressive alliances, particularly overseas. These are debates with which XR has yet to engage. We need to engage with and talk to these communities – we have to start from where they are.”
That means listening to – and including – voices from the global south, the island nations and the rural communities that face the sharp end of climate change, she says. XR must also recognise that different bodies and organisations will deliver change at varying pace; for some, it will be more realistic to work to become carbon neutral by 2030, or later. It is unhelpful, she says, to make everyone commit to a 2025 deadline for the sake of it.
“Demonising people who simply can’t deliver change within five years really doesn’t help,” she concludes. “Shock tactics are great for grabbing attention – but now we need to talk about real solutions. We need to be a little bit humble.
“We need to listen more, to learn from other movements, to support people working towards a New Green Deal. Because all that energy is very easily squandered, if people start to feel alienated and afraid.”
EXTINCTION REBELLION – THE THREE DEMANDS
On this summer’s Tory leadership battle:
"The only good thing about Boris Johnson is that he blows with the wind. He has no principles. If we establish a strong consensus about climate change among the British people, Boris absolutely will bow to that. We need to hold the Tories to account – particularly when it comes to airport expansion. We need to fight for a Tory version of the Green New Deal. We need to fully decarbonise by 2030, because nature may not be kind to us"
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