How to convince the public on climate change: ‘What we need is radical action’

Climate Crisis Film Festival Pic: Celine Wadhera

The argument over whether a more radical or nuanced approach should be taken by climate change activists in order to win over the public was aired at an event in Deptford over the weekend.

Following a screening of the 2011 film, “How to Start a Revolution,” at the Climate Crisis Film Festival at Deptford Cinema, the filmmaker and former BBC journalist Ruaridh Arrow chaired a discussion with Dr Charlie Gardner, a conservation scientist at the University of Kent and Extinction Rebellion member, and Stephen Hart, an XR representative.

The discussion centred on how the group, which describes itself as “an international movement that uses civil disobedience in an attempt to halt mass extinction and minimise the risk of social collapse” was using the non-violent revolutionary tools explored in the film to bring about political change.

These tools come from the book, “From Dictatorship to Democracy,” written by Gene Sharp, the protagonist of the documentary and Nobel Peace Prize nominee; they range from formal statements, such as public speeches and petitions, to picketing, mock funerals, boycotting, and non-violent occupation and have been used in revolutions around the world, from Serbia to Syria.

Arrow suggested that if XR had a set strategy on how to use these tools, with incremental goals that could be achieved along the way to accomplishing their ultimate demands, they could garner greater public support.

The two XR members rejected this stance, saying that there was no time for incrementalism, as drastic change is needed immediately, and anything less would not be acceptable.

Referring to the criticism that XR received after an October protest, where activists were pulled from atop a commuter Tube carriage in Canning Town, Arrow said: “I think what Gene Sharp might say is, ‘you actually have to look to building your movement and increasing public support, rather than reducing it.”

Gardner responded: “Disrupting public transport was not a useful thing to do,” and added the group “needs to be clearer in who we target.” He also said that they need to act in the interest of everybody.

XR’s has three demands: the Government must declare a climate and ecological emergency; the Government must halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025; and the Government must create and be led by the decisions of a ‘Citizens Assembly’ on climate and ecological justice.

Arrow said that these objectives were very wide and “not quite tangible for the ordinary person.” Referring to lessons learned from Sharp, he warned that without phased action and small victories that could be celebrated along the way, it would be difficult to keep the XR movement going.

But not all agreed with his cautious approach. Hart said: “When it comes to the climate crisis, incrementalism will not work, what we need is radical change.”

He conceded, however, these kinds of small victories did exist, for example, climate change being a top issue in the election, they just weren’t listed as objectives.

When challenged by Arrow to give an example of an achievable, incremental aim that the group could strive for, Gardner said: “Our explicit strategy is not to be prescriptive in what needs doing….We set the target and we call for a mechanism to decide on how to reach that target…We’re the alarm and we’ve rung the alarm.”

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