Over a month on from XR’s ‘The Big One’ in London, and with continuing civil disobedience from groups like Just Stop Oil, we ask: what is the most effective way to make a difference?

As the planet hurtles towards an uncertain and dangerous future, the stakes have never been higher in the fight against climate change. In the face of political inaction and corporate indifference, environmental activists are taking matters into their own hands, staging protests and acts of civil disobedience to demand urgent action to mitigate the worst impacts of the climate crisis.

But with different tactics and strategies vying for attention, from non-disruptive peaceful protests to more disruptive and attention-grabbing actions, the question remains: what is the most effective way to make a real difference in the fight against climate change?

The 3.5% rule and the power of attendance

Extinction Rebellion (XR) has become one of the most prominent environmental groups in the UK, known for their civil disobedience that often leads to arrests.

However, they have recently shifted their tactics to prioritiseattendance over arrest, citing the “3.5% rule“. This rule is based on research from Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist at Harvard University, showing that every non-violent protest between 1900 and 2006 that reached the threshold of 3.5% of the population in attendance at the “peak” event was successful in achieving its aims.

With the UK’s population approaching 70 million people, a turnout of just under 2.5 million would be needed to have the kind of impact XR is seeking.

The highest attendance ever recorded at a protest in the UK was at the 2003 “stop the war” protest against the UK’s military action in Iraq. Attendance was between 750,000 and 2 million people, depending on whether you take the estimation of the police or the organisers. In all likelihood it was somewhere between these two figures.

Despite such a strong turnout, the protest did not reach the 3.5% threshold, and ultimately was unsuccessful in achieving its aims of preventing an invasion of Iraq.

The most recent mass environmental protest, The Big One, held in London in April had just 60,000 people in attendance, despite organisers hoping for a turnout of 100,000. So, given the urgency of the climate crisis, is conventional protest in the form of peaceful marches really a viable and effective means to force policymakers to change course?

Disruption or attendance?

Days before The Big One, a more disruptive protest was staged by Just Stop Oil at the World Snooker Championships, with a protester exploding orange powder over the table and subsequently being arrested. Protests such as these are commonplace nowadays, from soup thrown over paintings, to protestors glueing themselves to the roads — the more disruptive the protest, the more headlines will be written about it.

Such protests often receive media backlash, as it is regular people who are most affected by sabotaged sporting events and traffic disruption. Most people accept that climate change is a significant challenge, with 84% ‘concerned’ about climate change (survey carried out on the British public, but global numbers are broadly similar). If everyday people, media and the government dislike disruptive protests, non-disruptive peaceful protests should surely be better received? Unfortunately, this is not always the case.

Press coverage of The Big One was extremely limited. BBC News and Channel 4 News did not cover the story on their Saturday evening shows during the weekend and no major newspapers ran any positive front-page coverage on the event. Many of the stories that did make it to print following The Big One were patently spreading misinformation and deliberately vilifying protestors on the basis of falsehoods. For example, a number of stories featured claims that The Big One would disrupt the London Marathon, despite the fact that the organisers had explicitly stated this would not be the case, having liaised for months with the police and marathon organisers in the build up to the event.

This presents protestors with a dilemma: prioritise disruption, in full knowledge that this will not be popular but will make the news, or prioritise attendance, which may make its way to the 6th page of the papers and may or may not be dishonestly spun by the media.

Climate Action Now

Time is not on our side. Sir David King, former UK Government Chief Scientific Advisor states: “what we do in the next 3-4 years, I believe, will determine the future of humanity.”

Current implemented policies are projected to lead to global warming of 3.2°C by 2100, and the carbon budget for 1.5°C will be exhausted by 2030 if we continue to emit at the current rate. To stand by as a mere onlooker in the face of such a grave reality is not only unconscionable, but immoral.

“Priority number one has to be to stop taking fossil fuels out of the ground”

Whilst various activist groups have slightly different aims, from Just Stop Oil to Insulate Britain, the overarching goal is ubiquitous: to rapidly decarbonise our economy and mitigate the most disastrous environmental impacts of climate change.

There is much to be done, from improving home insulation to reducing plastic dependency. Whilst we all have a role to play, individual action is futile whilst fossil fuel companies continue extracting coal, oil and gas at the current rate. Priority number one has to be to stop taking fossil fuels out of the ground.

In 2021, the International Energy Agency (IEA) warned that no new oil, gas or coal development should be permitted if the world is to reach net zero emissions by 2050. This is a particular priority within the UK, as we have the highest number of fossil fuel sites in protected areas globally. Despite this, the government is pushing to grant new licences for coal mines in Cumbria, and oil extraction in the North Sea.

The priority for Just Stop Oil and XR is that the Government immediately stop granting new licences for fossil fuel exploration, and begin to phase out fossil fuels. This was one of the key demands at The Big One.

The lack of publicity afforded to The Big One, contrasted with the substantial publicity disruptive action can generate gives a renewed impetus for disruptive action, activists argue.

In addition to the specific goal of halting fossil fuel extraction, there are further, less-specific benefits of climate activism. Keeping the issue on the global news agenda (primarily through disruptive action) sparks ongoing discussion and debate in the public sphere, ensuring the issue remains relevant and pressing. This is vital in driving a shift in the Overton Window towards stronger regulations aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, making it impossible for politicians to disregard the need for change. Such an approach has yielded promising results, with 52% of Britons now believing that the UK should bring all emissions to net zero before 2050.

A man is stood outside the Houses of Parliament, defiantly holding a sign saying "end fossil fuels now". Around him, many other protestors are gathered.

A protester demands that the UK Government “END FOSSIL FUELS NOW” at The Big One, London (Image by Tom Howarth/The Climate)

Why protest is absolutely necessary

Despite overwhelming scientific evidence and widespread public concern, our Government continues to push new licences for oil and gas extraction under the guise of carbon capture at a later date, which has yet to be proven as effective on a large scale. This is not only unethical but likely illegal, as it is in contravention of the Government’s own legally binding commitment to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

It is a dereliction of duty owed to future generations, who will bear the consequences of our actions (and lack thereof) in years to come.

The recent 20-year anniversary of the Iraq war was an opportunity to reflect upon the legacy of the UK’s involvement in military action there. In 2003, it was not known what the legacy of the war would be 20 years on, yet still people mobilised in vast numbers.

Today, in 2023, it is crystal clear what the result of inaction will be. 20 years from now, if we continue on our current pledges, greenhouse gases will have caused global temperatures to rise well-above the 1.5°C goal laid out in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, increasing the risk of multiple climate tipping points and risking vast areas between the tropics becoming uninhabitable (where 40% of the world population currently resides). If we get to this point, the number of refugees that the climate crisis could create is unfathomable. In 20 years time, history will judge inaction today highly unfavourably.

To stand idly by is not an option. As the IPCC’s recent AR6 synthesis report tells us, it is politics, not possibility, that is limiting action to stave off the most severe effects of global warming. In support of civil disobedience, Gandhi once said: “Silence becomes cowardice when occasion demands speaking out the whole truth and acting accordingly.” This begs the question, why are more people not taking to the streets?