Extinction Rebellion: Courageous Activism, Flawed Strategy

By Frank Rotering | November 10, 2018

NOTE: For reasons of scientific accuracy I normally use the term "GHG crisis" instead of "climate change" or "climate crisis" to identify the GHG-based emergencies.  Here I revert to standard terminology in order to facilitate communication with my target audience.

A newly-formed activist group, Extinction Rebellion, deserves high praise for its protests against the UK government's inaction on climate change.  Guided by the principles of non-violent direct action, the group has courageously blocked roads and invited arrests.  During the October 31, 2018 event in London, about 1,000 protesters expressed their outrage, and 15 were temporarily jailed.  Further actions are planned as the group tries to intensify and broaden its initiative.

Extinction Rebellion's views on the climate crisis are summarized in this declaration of rebellion, this introductory video, and this presentation by co-founder Gail Bradbrook.  Based on these sources, the group is indisputably correct on two crucial points.  First, the threat is existential and must be addressed with the utmost urgency.  As stated in the introductory video, a climate emergency now exists, and "we're very nearly out of time."  Second, the lack of effective action to date is an evil that must be radically confronted.  The group's declaration of rebellion is fully justified in asserting that, "We have a right and duty to rebel in the face of this tyranny of idiocy - in the face of this planned collective suicide."

Like the numerous academics who signed this letter to the Guardian, I strongly support Extinction Rebellion (XR) in its desperate attempt to turn society away from self-immolation and toward the solutions that may yet lie within our grasp.  The following criticism is thus offered in the spirit of respect and solidarity, and with the sole purpose of sharpening the group's strategic vision.  I avoid the deeper issues of economics and politics in order to focus on a major error relating to climate change itself.

Briefly stated, XR acknowledges that humankind faces a climate emergency, but it refuses to consider the only measure that can prevent a short-term disaster: solar radiation management (SRM).  Given its logo, which depicts a stylized hourglass, the group understands that timeframes are of fundamental importance in responding to the climate crisis.  Despite this, it has failed to take them adequately into account.

It's not difficult to see why XR would steer clear of SRM.  Prominent climate scientists such as Kevin Anderson and Michael Mann have for years derided the approach as a mad "techno-fix" and a dangerous escape from emissions reductions.  In the Summary for Policymakers of the IPCC's recent 1.5°C report, SRM is dismissed in a single paragraph.  And progressive writer Naomi Klein, in a book described as "excellent" on the XR website, categorically rejects SRM as a continuation of past technological follies.  Such views, despite their broad support, profoundly distort reality.  Let me explain why.

Climate change is caused by the Earth's energy imbalance, which resulted from excess GHGs in the atmosphere.  Because this imbalance is now at a critical point for human civilization, it must be sharply reduced.  There are two ways to accomplish this.  One is to decrease the Sun's incoming radiation by increasing the Earth's reflectivity.  The other is to increase the Earth's outgoing radiation by decreasing GHG concentrations.  The latter option, however, is a long-term process.  Achieving safe GHG levels will require both an unprecedented drop in emission rates and a monumental effort to remove GHGs from the atmosphere.  Under even the most optimistic assumptions, these projects will take many decades to complete.

Unfortunately we don't have many decades. As noted by academic Rupert Read, who was a signatory to the Guardian letter, "The situation in the Arctic is now genuinely terrifying because of the risk of huge-scale methane release."  To avert this imminent calamity and give humankind a chance to reach GHG safety, the energy imbalance must be significantly reduced in the near-term future.  The only way to achieve this is the first option: to increase the Earth's reflectivity by implementing SRM.  (For my assessment of the arguments for and against SRM, including its potential dangers, see this post.)

The above line of reasoning points to the correct framing for SRM.  It is not a real solution to climate change because it doesn't reduce GHG concentrations.  Instead it is a protective measure to permit civilized human survival while the real solutions are being developed and implemented.  Although SRM can be perversely used to avoid emissions reductions, in its rational application it is a screen or parasol to abate global warming in order to buy our species some desperately needed time.  In brief, SRM must be understood not as a techno-fix, but as a techno-shield.  Let me assess XR's climate-change strategy with this perspective in mind.

The fullest exposition of the strategy I have been able to find is this list of demands.  The key statement is the following:

"The Government must enact legally-binding policy measures to reduce carbon emissions in the UK to net zero by 2025 and take further action to remove the excess of atmospheric greenhouse gases."

(Note: The above quote was taken from the XR website in Nov./18.  In an XR strategy document dated Feb./19 the demand to remove excess GHGs was replaced by the demand to reduce consumption.  By May/19 this had been replaced by the demand to halt biodiversity loss.  I contacted XR repeatedly about this inconsistency but have received no answer.)

Gail Bradbrook in her presentation specifies 350 ppm as the safe CO2 concentration, so I will take this as XR's removal goal.  The group's strategy for responding to a "terrifying" situation when "we're very nearly out of time" is therefore:

  1. Reduce carbon emissions in the UK to net zero by 2025;
  2. Remove CO2 from the atmosphere until 350 ppm is reached.

The first of these demands is completely unrealistic.  Even if the UK had already transitioned to a sustainable economy, the required rate of emissions reductions would likely be unachievable for purely practical reasons.  Under expansionary and carbon-soaked capitalism it is well beyond the realm of possibility.  The second demand applies to the globe as a whole rather than the UK specifically, but aside from this it is sound.  However, as stated above, the massive removal task would take many decades to complete.

XR's climate strategy thus consists of one unrealistic goal and one that cannot resolve the Arctic emergency in the time available.  The group's strategy therefore does not correspond to its correct claims about the climate crisis.  Its chosen path does not lead to its chosen destination.  This mismatch is inevitable if SRM is ignored.  If on the other hand this measure is assumed to be available, a workable plan can be formulated because the timeframes can be expanded to match the feasible rates of change.  An example of such a plan is the following:

  1. Immediately deploy SRM in the Arctic and possibly elsewhere to moderate global warming;
  2. Make the political and economic changes required to implement the rational solutions;
  3. Develop the technologies and consider the land-use changes required to remove excess GHGs from the atmosphere;
  4. Over a span of perhaps 50 years, reduce GHG emissions to net-zero;
  5. Over a similar time period, reduce GHG concentrations to their safe levels.

It should be noted that, although the anti-SRM position still dominates, it is quickly losing scientific support as the climate crisis intensifies.  Johan Rockström, a coauthor of the Hothouse Earth study, recently said that SRM could soon be considered at "the highest political level".  Even Michael Mann and the IPCC, both longstanding SRM foes, are hedging their bets.

Mann admits in his book The Madhouse Effect that SRM might be required if we, "... find ourselves in a situation where a stopgap measure is needed, where dangerous climate change is upon us and even worse impacts appear unavoidable ..."  (p. 118)  A "stopgap measure" is similar to the "techno-shield" idea above, and dangerous climate change is emphatically upon us.  Regarding the IPCC, its curt dismissal of SRM in the Summary for Policymakers is largely contradicted by its full report.  There the organization cites a high level of agreement that SRM could keep warming below 1.5°C (4-56).  The Summary also states that, "... SRM can potentially reduce the climate impacts of a temporary temperature overshoot ..." (4-57)

It thus appears that many scientists, albeit with some hemming and hawing, are now shifting their positions on SRM.  Progressives, by contrast, seem to be impervious to such rational reassessment.  They apparently agree with Naomi Klein that, "... the solution to global warming is not to fix the world, it is to fix ourselves."  (This Changes Everything, p. 279)  This statement is grossly illogical because fixing ourselves - modifying our present behavior - fails to address the planetary impacts of our past behavior.  But it is precisely these impacts, particularly the atmosphere's perilous GHG concentrations, that now threaten our well-being and existence.  It is absolutely clear that we have to fix not just ourselves, but the world of unsafe GHGs as well.

This growing divergence between progressives and scientists means that XR, as a progressive organization, faces a difficult question.  Will it remain loyal to a movement that is increasingly divorced from climate reality, or will it critically examine the movement's position and develop an independent strategy?  If XR is truly committed to a climate solution, it will match its activist courage by bravely choosing the latter option.


Minor edits: Dec. 18/18; Aug. 25/19

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