A year on from the 2019 International Rebellion: What’s changed? 

This month marks a year since Extinction Rebellion Scotland joined the Rebellion in London, part of the International Rebellion which rocked capital cities across the globe. This was the biggest direct action seen in the UK for decades and led to significant shifts in policy and public opinion. Here, we take a look back at what happened in April last year and since then.

After dropping a banner off Glasgow’s Finnieston Crane that read “Listen to the Science”, disrupting business as usual by blocking Edinburgh’s North Bridge for nine hours, and running an educational festival about climate problems and solutions, over 70 XR protestors from across Scotland caught the night bus to London and arrived in Parliament Square early on the morning of Thursday 19th April 2019.

The bus had been delayed due to the XR protests in central London and when asked about his feelings about the delay, the driver commented, ‘There are going to be delays all week, and I might lose my bonus as a result, but it’s completely worth it for the sake of my children’.

The April International Rebellion in London, occupying five iconic junctions, was the largest example of civil disobedience seen in the UK since the 1960s, resulting in 1,130 arrests and making Extinction Rebellion a household name.

Members of XR Scotland played many roles throughout the two weeks of the Rebellion, from legal observers to taking part in direct action to supporting arrestees and picking them up from police stations. Scottish rebels held three corners of Parliament Square for five days, holding people’s assemblies throughout the week to discuss how we can tackle the climate and ecological crisis rapidly and fairly. Shutting down this seat of power and creating a vision for the future we want to see through mass civil disobedience was inspiring, exhilarating, exhausting and emotional. But did it really achieve anything? To paraphrase many activist heroes: change always seems impossible until it becomes inevitable.

Extinction Rebellion has three demands.

Demand #1 Tell The Truth: Government must tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency, working with other institutions to communicate the urgency for change.

XR, and the April Rebellion in particular – alongside the school strikes – transformed the public and political perception of the drastic reality of climate breakdown, mass extinction and resulting socio-economic collapse. Words like ‘extinction’, ‘crisis’ and ‘climate emergency’ have become buzzwords, used by the media, politicians and in our day-to-day lives. Public support for urgent action on climate change increased to a record high after April, with one survey showing that 63% agree that we face a climate emergency. By September 2019, a Survation poll showed public support for XR’s goal of net zero emissions by 2025 had grown to an amazing 33%, while just 15% supported the UK government’s goal of 2050.

On the 28th of April, Nicola Sturgeon made Scotland the first country in the world to declare a climate emergency, with Wales following close behind. Then, on the 1st of May 2019, five days after the XR demonstrations ended, the Labour motion to declare an ‘environment and climate emergency’ was passed by the House of Commons.

John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor at the time, commented that ‘The activists successfully raised the profile of the climate threat and focused the minds of us all on the radical action that is needed. Following the April 2019 demonstrations, we, the Labour Party, announced our plan… to pass a motion declaring an ‘environment and climate emergency’. This would make the UK Parliament the first in the world to do so, with the intention to trigger a wave of action from governments and parliaments around the world…’

Throughout 2019, governments and councils across the globe followed suit, with the European Union declaring a climate emergency in late November. These declarations have led to new policies, a rethinking of strategies combating climate change and organisations from fashion houses to fossil fuel companies declaring climate emergencies and committing to reducing their emissions. But more must be done. A declaration is just empty words if we fail to hold the powerful to account and demand action.

Demand #2: Act Now: Government must act now to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025.

Both the Scottish and UK governments have now set dates for net zero greenhouse gas emissions – UK 2050 and Scotland 2045. They have also started to consult on plans for a fair transition to lower carbon economies. However, these targets still only give us a 50/50 chance of staying below the ‘safe’ level of 1.5C of warming.

Demand #3 Beyond Politics: Government must create and be led by the decisions of a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice.

In April last year, XR called for a Citizens’ Assembly to reboot our democracy and lead the government in tackling the climate and ecological emergency. A Citizens’ Assembly is a randomly selected, representative assembly of ordinary people who hear from expert witnesses and make recommendations on an issue – much like a jury. CAs remove the vested interests and political pressures that make it next to impossible for politicians to implement the transformative changes to our society which are necessary to tackle this crisis.

Since April, both the UK and Scotland have established Citizens’ Assemblies on Climate Change. These assemblies have been given only limited powers but they can still make influential recommendations. The louder we support them, the more the government will have to listen.

In the words of Rebecca Solnit, writer of Hope In The Dark, “your opponents would love you to believe that it’s hopeless, that you have no power, that there’s no reason to act, that you can’t win.”

But the sea change in language, action and policy around the climate and ecological emergency in just 12 months is proof that we should have hope, that we do have power; and, most importantly, that we can win.

In the face of the COVID-19 global pandemic, we have seen things happen in the political and community spheres thought impossible only a few short weeks ago. We have seen a truly emergency response to an international crisis capable of killing millions and destroying the lives of many more.

We have shown that we are able to step up to a crisis; we can and must do it again with real action on the climate and ecological crisis.

XR Scotland meeting in Parliament Square, London, 18 April 2019

XR Glasgow arriving in Parliament Square