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‘XR’s biggest failing is not its urgency, nor taking things too seriously, but conversely not taking the crisis seriously enough.’ Photograph:SOPA Images/Rex/Shutterstock

The climate crisis demands more than blocking roads, Extinction Rebellion

Activists targeting motorists need to think bigger. They need to persuade Labour to make climate a part of every campaign

The Extinction Rebellion (XR) is a headline machine. In blocking roads and bridges, protesters have brought a momentary stop to the pump and snarl of city motorists – and annoyed any number of drivers in the process. In doing so, not only does the group signal a willingness to shut down cities to hammer home the scale of the crisis but draws attention to cities’ addiction to petrol. The rationale for this kind of action – and I’ve blocked many a road in my time – is that the situation is so serious that peaceful obstruction is necessary to bring wider attention and demand change, inconvenience be damned.

Are motorists the right target? The preference still given to the car in transport policy is ultimately incompatible with tackling climate change: in a world committed to limiting climate catastrophe, we will need a renewed, cheap and efficient public transport network. But the rationale for road and bridge blocking doesn’t come from a desire to shift this debate. Rather, XR’s tactics are twofold: one, to draw on the repertoire developed by direct action and social justice movements throughout the last century to make political and media impact; two, by a willingness to face legal repercussions for taking action, demonstrate the seriousness of the crisis and build a movement.

The climate movement is not unfamiliar with these tactics. Activists associated with groups such as Plane Stupid or the Camp for Climate Actionhave taken dramatic actions against the aviation industry or fossil fuel producers – including occupying and temporarily shutting down coal-powered stations, and facing down the legal repercussions that followed. Given just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions, perhaps a strategy focused on those companies – their buildings, their plants, their delivery networks – would function better to rally the greater public behind the movement: such actions need both to communicate why an action is being taken, across the media, as well as being willing to actually put bodies and reputations on the line.

There are wider political questions that the movement ought to consider, too. Many of the icons of non-violent protest cited by protesters – GandhiMartin Luther KingRosa Parks – were successful not simply because of the moral gravity of their protest but because their protests were rooted in a wider story of grievance, with clear stories of injustice, moral rationale for their acts of refusal, and deeply linked to their own communities.

Leaving aside the inevitable detritus of social movements – the eccentric meditators and people with curious hair – XR’s biggest failing is not its urgency, nor taking things too seriously, but conversely not taking the crisis seriously enough. This is clearest in the nascent movement’s unwillingness to formulate targeted political demands and absence of a political strategy. If we accept that we have a very limited time to bring emissions under control, then we must also accept that the vehicles for that enormous transformation will be those that already exist, however imperfectly. That includes national legislatures, international bodies and political parties.

The movement’s laudable but vague three aims – that government and press tell the truth; to bring emissions to zero; that a democratic assembly oversees the process – remind me of the classic problem of politics. That is, knowing where you want to end up, but without any middle steps, failing to understand how to get there.

Such a proposal will be uncomfortable for many protesters, who rightly look at Labour’s record on climate with scepticism verging on disgust. But, as Extinction Rebellion might themselves say, the situation is too urgent to do anything else.

 James Butler is co-founder and senior editor at Novara Media

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