On April 1, as MPs gathered in the House of Commons for the latest debate on the future of Brexit — as many sought to avert the forthcoming cliff edge of April 12 — the drama picked up pace as some of those in the public viewing gallery above the chamber stripped down to their underwear, gluing themselves to the glass pane of the gallery. While MPs swiftly resumed their debate, the action attracted public attention in the way its organisers — the climate protest group Extinction Rebellion — had hoped in order to bring attention to the “elephant in the room.”

“Our government is wasting precious airtime rearranging the deckchairs as the Brexitanic sinks,” warned the group at the time. “There’s a far bigger problem we need to tackle here…money will mean nothing when crops fail and there’s no food on the shelves.”

Amid public discontent in Europe with the action of individual nations and the EU itself to take sufficient action to tackle climate change (many campaigners argue that the EU’s ambition of cutting carbon emissions by 40 per cent by 2030 from 1990 levels is insufficient), public action across the continent has been growing. At the forefront of this has been action by young people, spurred on by the school protest movement started by the Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, whose (initially solitary) protest outside the Swedish parliament in 2018, inspired young people well beyond her country’s borders.

Thousands of students across Europe took part in the global student strike on climate change in March, while Thunberg herself has joined protests in different countries — this week in the UK where she addressed both members of Extinction Rebellion as well as MPs in the UK Parliament (alongside meetings with leaders of several political parties, though notably not the government).

She accused governments of peddling lies and giving young people false hope of a future to look forward to. “Around the year 2030, 10 years 252 days and 10 hours away from now, we will be in a position where we set off an irreversible chain reaction beyond human control, that will most likely lead to the end of our civilisation as we know it. That is unless in that time, permanent and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society have taken place, including a reduction of CO2 emissions by at least 50 per cent.”

Mass extinction

However, the action is far from just confined to students: Extinction Rebellion — launched last October — won early backing from over 100 academics who warned of the need for “robust and emergency action.”

“We are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, with around 200 species becoming extinct each day. Humans cannot continue to violate the fundamental laws of nature or of science with impunity. If we continue on our current path, the future for our species is bleak,” they warned in a letter published in the Guardian as the group launched.

Supporters of the movement have ranged from the author Philip Pullman to actress Emma Thompson who this week flew to London to join the group’s protests, which have ratcheted up a level since early April.

Since Monday last week, protesters have taken over bridges across the city, and at key road artery junctions such as Oxford Circus and Marble Arch.

For nine days the roads around the iconic 19th century marble monument were cordoned off and taken over by the protest group, who used the base to stage action across the city, as well as take part in workshops that both sought to identify solutions to the climate change “emergency” as well as prepare the activists for what the group’s leaders’ said were a necessary part of their action: getting as many of them arrested as possible to draw attention to the movement.

Courting arrest

“We can’t get arrested quick enough,” the group’s co-founder Roger Hallam was quoted by the Guardian as saying last year.

Since the latest phase of the group’s protests kicked off, over 1,000 activists have been arrested — some of them (including university professors) taking to social media to highlight pictures of their action and arrest.

Protests have not been confined to the government: last week a number of activists glued themselves to the fence of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s house, calling for the party to take a more radical stance on climate change.

The group has centred its demands along three main lines: demanding the government “tell the truth” (such as on its approach to fossil fuels, which involves the largest subsidies in the EU, according to the group), that UK work to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2025, and that a “citizens assembly” be set up to involve the public in finding the right route forward to tackle the climate change crisis.

In the latest phase this week, the group targeted the City and Canary Wharf, London’s two financial heartlands.

While the movement has perhaps unsurprisingly faced criticism over its tactics (this is not just aimed at the disruption caused, as its approach to encouraging being arrested has been criticised by some for potentially excluding those from minority groups and non-British citizens for whom the experience of police forces has been traditionally far less comfortable) it has also won supporters, including from the world of business.

Over the weekend, business leaders, including the former CEO of Unilever Paul Polman, and partners at a number of asset managers wrote to the Times expressing their support for XR Business — an initiative set up by Extinction Rebellion aimed at engaging with industry, investors and advisors.

“Contrary to belief, there is business support for the Extinction Rebellion agenda…Most businesses were not designed in the contest of the developing climate emergency. Hence we must urgently redesign entire industries and businesses, using science-based targets,” they wrote.

However, perhaps one of the group’s most significant acknowledgements has come from the governors of the UK and France’s central banks, who in a joint open letter, warned that if companies failed to sufficiently prepare for the human and financial costs of climate change, they would “fail to exist.”