The Three Asks of Extinction Rebellion

Like the School Strike, the worldwide movement Extinction Rebellion has received a lot of attention lately. And rightly so. Climate change is probably the greatest threat and opportunity we face as a planet. But are their demands a good idea?

First let me say that activism is absolutely essential. Extinction Rebellion is a welcome voice in the environmental debate. I’m not personally much of a protester, but some of their protest ideas are a great way of sparking a conversation. I think they are excellent at asking the questions – it’s then up to organisations like The Opportunities Party to provide the answers.

So I want to take the position of ‘critical friend’ and examine Extinction Rebellion’s three “asks”:

  1. Tell the Truth: Governments must tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency and work with other institutions to communicate the urgency for change.
  2. Act Now: Governments must act now to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025.
  3. Beyond Politics: Governments must create a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice and be led by its decisions.

Let’s deal with the easy stuff first.

Beyond Politics

I agree with this 100%.

As Chloe Swarbrick says, if you designed an institution to deal with many of our modern challenges, it wouldn’t look like Parliament. As The Opportunities Party says, we need a “democracy reset”. This includes more extensive use of citizens’ assemblies to make decisions.

For that to work, there has to be much greater devolution of power, which both the major political parties oppose (for obvious reasons). And yet this would help honour the Treaty of Waitangi. Devolution is the essence of rangatiratanga, except that everyone can have it – not just Māori.

Some of our local authorities have successfully used citizens’ assemblies to start adapting to sea level rise. This should be happening a lot more.

While some claim that this approach would result in a ‘postcode lottery’ of different approaches in different areas, I personally don’t see that as a downside. I see it as useful experimentation.

Tell The Truth

Yes! And this is central to TOP’s values. But framing also has an important impact on how ‘truth’ is received. There is little doubt that an environmental emergency is impacting the climate, biodiversity, and clean water. Either we try to address these issues as a planet or deal with the consequences. It’s an emergency either way.

But is that an effective way to frame it? I’m no psychologist, but I do know that if you put people into a state of fear they are less open to change. Instead, they hunker down and focus on taking care of themselves and their family. This is not a helpful mindset. We need the sort of wartime mindset where people came together to fight for King and Country and shared what little they had until the enemy was defeated.

In my view, we need to truthfully demonstrate that there is an emergency BUT there is also a way to win this battle and still live in the best little country in the world. We might need to do some things differently, but we can still have great quality of life. That is certainly the objective of The Opportunities Party, which is why we support the use of new technologies like gene editing that could help us make that transition to a low carbon economy. 

Some have criticised the Climate Emergency as being purely symbolic, which it is. However, it has raised the profile of the issue, which leads nicely into the next ask: Act Now. 

Act Now

Definitely! Without taking action a declaration of a Climate Emergency is just window dressing.

But should the goal be net zero carbon by 2025? That’s a big ask. To achieve it, we either need to get out of all our cars, trucks and planes by 2025 or switch them to electric. Sadly, neither scenario is likely.

The other path to net zero carbon is to plant lots of trees. Don’t get me wrong, trees are great, and we have lots of erosion prone land that should certainly be returned to native bush. But we probably won’t get that. We’ll probably get lots more pine instead, and I’m not sure that’s a great thing for our rural communities.

The real challenge with climate change is to remove fossil fuels from our lives as soon as possible. It isn't sexy but one key way to do that is to get a decent price on carbon. We need to crack on with reducing fossil fuels instead of continuing as we are and planting trees to make ourselves feel better. Plus we won’t need to import a whole lot of fossil fuels from dodgy Middle Eastern regimes.

As for agricultural emissions, that’s a lot more complex. Luckily, Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Simon Upton has suggested a way forward by using trees to offset other agricultural emissions. This is the pathway to net zero on land.

In short, we absolutely need to act now. But the right way forward is a lot more complex than slogans. If we want to set a stretch goal, I’d be talking about phasing out fossil fuel use by 2050, rather than anything to do with net zero carbon.