People don't trust the government on climate change. So what now?

Organisations like Extinction Rebellion are seeking a radical alternative to government inaction. Is there any way to rebuild trust?

December 03, 2018
Protesters from the Extinction Rebellion movement, demonstrating against government inaction over climate change. Photo: PA
Protesters from the Extinction Rebellion movement, demonstrating against government inaction over climate change. Photo: PA

“People gonna rise like water; shut this system down,” sung activist Eliza Kenyon during the Extinction Rebellion protest in Whitehall the other weekend. Her voice was so lyrical that it drew comment from the line of police guarding the Downing Street gates. “She was quite a good singer!” one officer commented to his colleague as Kenyon passed by, holding her placard.

A far cry from the blazing protests against fuel tax rises in France, Britain’s new resistance movement is reassuringly gentle. Over the course of November, London’s road blockades have been accompanied, not by fire, but by performance art and marching bands.

Yet Extinction Rebellion’s soft approach to direct action belies a radical core. Their central demands stretch from averting climate breakdown to political reform. The most interesting, perhaps, is the demand to introduce a randomly selected “Citizen’s Assembly” to oversee the transition to a green economy.

“By necessity these demands require initiatives and mobilisation of similar size and scope to those enacted in times of war,” states an accompanying declaration, “We do not, however, trust our Government to make the bold, swift and long-term changes necessary to achieve this.”

The potential here for an outright rejection of the current system of government seems real. At an Extinction Rebellion press event in early November, one speaker painted the climate crisis as a crisis of democracy: “Politicians will probably lead us down the fascist path into elitism,” said Stuart Basden, a 36-year-old former web developer turned full-time activist with a taste for colourful trousers.

When we met again last week, Basden expanded on the reasons for his extreme pessimism. “Trust is entirely broken in the current system,” he said, pointing to the influence of corporate lobbyists and the British government’s complicity in the crisis in Yemen. “We don’t want to allow [MPs] to make the decision about how we get to carbon neutral, because they could do atrocious things with it.”

Basden’s views are perhaps at the acute end of opinion even within the Rebellion Extinction movement (he has already gone to prison for protesting a third runway at Heathrow). Yet the climate crisis is also arguably helping spread a more general disillusionment with mainstream politics.

As nations prepare to meet at next month’s UN Conference on Climate Change in Poland, global CO2 emissions are still on the rise. Deadly wildfires, heatwaves, and floods have dominated headlines throughout 2018, and linked events are now “the biggest global health threat of the 21st century,” according to a new report by The Lancet.

Even establishment experts are consequently scorning representative democracy. Writing in the Financial Times, the energy economist Dieter Helm argued that decarbonisation is still too expensive to be palatable to the public. “The political fact is that, while voters tell us they care about the climate, their concern fades quickly when they are told it is going to increase their electricity bills.”

Helm and Basden identify different flaws in the democratic process, and offer very different solutions to the climate crisis (for Helm technology isn’t yet up to scratch, while for Basden the economy is not orientated along sufficiently ethical lines), but they share a scepticism in the present system of government. So can anything be done to break the mistrust?

The suggestion of a Citizens’ Assembly may have something to offer. According to Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts and former strategist to Tony Blair, Citizen’s Assemblies could help orchestrate a properly informed public debate and give “politicians the courage to make the right decisions for the long-term.”

Such a process has already been used to great effect in Ireland, Taylor explains, where the issue of abortion was so thorny it had reached political deadlock. The question was then put to a randomly selected group of 99 representative citizens, who discussed evidence over a period of five months, and ultimately recommended amending the constitution.

It is possible that a similar process could help governments find ways to better marry climate justice and economic security. The same Citizens’ Assembly in Ireland has also already recommended putting climate change at the centre of policy-making—from promoting electric cars, to retrofitting public buildings—with 80 per cent of participants saying they would be willing to pay higher taxes to achieve this.

This suggests that environmentalists and fuel-tax protestors don’t necessarily have to be at odds, and when I ask Basden if he felt disheartened by the recent French protests, he instead expressed sympathy and solidarity: “They are stuck in a system where they are reliant on their cars, so when fuel is put up it makes their lives a lot harder.”

But achieving such cohesive movement on UK climate issues may also require dropping a few layers of cynicism. On the technical side, this means questioning Helm’s argument that decarbonisation is still too costly: the European Commission, for instance, has already released a plan to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 while doubling GDP.

In terms of politics, if Extinction Rebellion goes on to argue for removing MPs entirely—as suggested by the Sortition Foundationthey risk delaying emissions reductions by prioritising full-scale democratic change.

Instead, what is most needed now is trust and co-operation. Before the protestors left the Downing Street gates the other weekend, they sent up a cry of “This is what democracy looks like,” repeating it three times. And just as politicians must find new ways to listen to these voices, so climate activists also need to listen back.