Extinction Rebellion, Greta Thunberg and the Climate Change Crisis


Alan Dearling talks about these and other issues and events with Pete Somerville

Photos (with many grateful thanks) are courtesy of Colin Rayner. They were taken by Colin at the Bristol Youth Strike 4 Climate action on 28th February 2020, where Greta Thunberg was the guest of honour. The BBC estimated that about 15,000 attended. The organisers say it was more like 30,000.

Colin Rayner Photography website: https://colin-rayner.pixels.com/


Alan: I wanted to talk to you, Pete, about how you’ve become so actively involved in Extinction Rebellion and the climate crisis…How does it relate to your past life and work?

Pete: Hi Alan. It’s always enjoyable to talk to you and I thank you for your interest in my work. Most of my life I have worked on housing and homelessness, both as a practitioner and as an academic and researcher. I have also researched and written on issues of class, race, gender, disability, democracy, political participation and local government. I have always been interested in environmental issues and animal welfare and rights, and have long supported a number of organisations involved in these issues, such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. In recent years, and particularly since the Paris Agreement in 2015, I have immersed myself in the literature on climate science, particularly reading anything that might shed light on why climate change mitigation policy has failed and why UK governments in particular seem to be moving backwards on the issue. I recall being very upset at the approval for the third runway at Heathrow airport in 2017 – I actually wrote to FoE (Friends of the Earth) about it as I thought it should be a key concern for them and I received a reply stating that it was not a priority for them at the time (air pollution was foremost on their agenda). So I was interested in direct action and signed up to a number of networks such as 350.org and Coal Action Network and Reclaim the Power. When I heard about XR, which I think was in July 2018, I joined up as soon as I could.

Alan: So, what is your role now in Extinction Rebellion (XR)?

Pete: I try to do two things in XR. One is to attend the weekly meetings and support my fellow rebels as much as I can, to keep the momentum going and provide a measure of stability and consistency – building a movement, as they say. The other is to take part in as many actions as I can, highlighting the need to leave fossil fuels in the ground and to put pressure on governments at national and local level to act like this is a real emergency.

Alan: XR is a new organisation, really only active since the Climate Protests in London in October 2018. It seems to be very much a popular and youthful response to what David Attenborough, Greenpeace, Earth First and Friends of the Earth and others have been warning us about. What are its main aims and do you think it can achieve them?

Pete: XR is a new organisation, yes, but I don’t think it is correct to say it is a response to what these others have been warning about. Rather, it is a response to the failure of governments to do what is necessary to combat climate change. FoE and David Attenborough and nearly everyone else did not recognise that the world was experiencing a climate emergency until after XR was formed. XR is a very different organisation from Greenpeace. Both organisations are concerned with direct action but Greenpeace is more specialist, if I can put it like that, whereas XR is more of a mass organisation. As for Earth First!, XR owes a lot to it in terms of culture and organisation (this is also true of Climate Camp, I think) but many XR members (including myself) are not as ecocentric as Earth First! XR originated from Rising Up!, which was primarily a grassroots self-organising anti-capitalist organisation, and this is what XR still tries to be.

XR’s main aims are well known. The first aim of ‘Tell the Truth’ is directed at governments, media and corporations who continue to lie about and misrepresent the facts about climate change and its causes – the term ‘greenwash’ hardly does justice to the enormity of the disinformation involved. More recently, this has extended to lies and malicious rumours about XR itself. However, I think we are beginning to make progress towards achieving this aim, as, for example, the BBC’s new year resolution to prioritise the climate change issue and the recent TV programme on XR, which was a pretty fair coverage. Small improvements, perhaps, but time will tell. Parliament has declared a climate and environmental emergency, as also have numerous local authorities, but this is just tokenism unless they take immediate action, which they have not.

The second aim is net zero carbon emissions by 2025. When this was first proposed in 2018 most people regarded it as preposterous. Then the IPCC report (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) came out in July 2018 that said we have to reverse the trend of increasing emissions by 2030 in order to avoid climate catastrophe and suddenly 2025 did not seem so ludicrous. Now, net zero carbon by 2030 is looking more realistic though Costa Rica is still the only country in the world that is set to achieve that. In XR UK we believe that a big push to end new extraction and combustion of fossil fuels in 2020 is feasible, along with ending all investments in fossil-fuel industries by 2022. The manifestos of the Labour Party, Green Party and Liberal Democratic Party at the last general election all contained ambitious proposals that would significantly reduce the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. Obviously, there is concern that the Conservatives could be in power until 2024, which will be too late for the 2025 target, but a lot could happen before then. Offshore wind is developing apace, solar power costs continue to fall, and allowing more onshore wind could make a huge difference. The national grid continues to be electrified, and this needs to be accelerated, and the shift to electric vehicles needs to be more actively promoted by government. Overall, net zero carbon by 2025 still looks unlikely but 2030 seems not only possible but necessary.


The third aim is people’s assemblies. These can be set up at any level (national, regional, local) and are important for ensuring democratic decision-making and popular support for decisions made on how net zero carbon should be achieved. When it comes to issues such as housing, transport, and food, it is important for the public to be involved and not just rely on their elected representatives. Climate mitigation and adaptation are complex and public deliberation is a necessary way forward. XR has given a great deal of thought to how people’s assemblies can be organised to be as fair and effective as possible. XR is not officially party political but it will be necessary to have an Act of Parliament that requires government to take due account of decisions made by people’s assemblies, for example any plan to achieve net zero carbon by 2025.

Alan: These are some excerpts from what Greta Thunberg said in Bristol. They seem to be very much words and thoughts from the same song sheet as used by Extinction Rebellion. What do you think?

“Our leaders behave like children so it falls to us to be the adults in the room. They are failing us but we will not back down.”

“It should not be this way but we have to tell the uncomfortable truth. They sweep their mess under the rug and ask children to clean up for them.

“This emergency is being completely ignored by the politicians, the media and those in power.

“Basically, nothing is being done to halt this crisis despite all the beautiful words and promises from our elected officials.

“So what did you do during this crucial time? I will not be silenced when the world is on fire.”

Pete: I love Greta, of course, but I don’t agree with all of this. It seems to assume a divide between generations (adults and children), which I think is simplistic. However, I agree with her that our elected officials are full of greenwash, as are fossil-fuel companies. The media are not entirely ignoring the emergency now but their attention is somewhat sporadic and lacking in depth or understanding (as they are on most issues).

Alan: The Bristol event gained both positive and negative publicity in the media and locally in Bristol. I gather many think that Greta is naïve and being manipulated. There was also anger at the fact that the College Green site was turned into a muddy quagmire, prior to the march through Bristol. Similar reactions apply to XR. Any thoughts on both?

Pete: I can’t comment on the Bristol event as I wasn’t there. I don’t know the source of your information but I know people who know Greta and they don’t think that she is either naïve or manipulated. On XR generally, I can only say that on all the actions that I have been involved in considerable efforts have been made to leave sites exactly as we found them. This is more than I can say for most ‘events’ in which I have participated over the course of my life. And I’m not saying this out of loyalty to XR – it’s just a fact of my experience. I do have criticisms of XR, but this is not one of them.

Alan: These are some more words from Greta’s speech. Do you see them as the message that XR is trying to get across to people across the world?

“We are the change, and change is coming whether you like it or not.”

“Activism works so I’m telling you to act,” she said. “We are being betrayed by those in power.”

(The banner which Greta helped carry at the front of the Bristol march reads: ‘Skolstrejk for Klimatet’, which means ‘School Strike for Climate’ in Swedish.

Pete: No – these messages are not clear enough for me. Things are always changing, aren’t they? So what change is she talking about? Perhaps she is referring to a slogan that we do use: ‘System change not climate change’. That seems clearer to me, though of course there is a lot of difference in opinion about what the system is. Similarly with action – it’s not clear what action is envisaged by this message. We need to be clear about what action we take and why. XR talks a lot about non-violent direct action but even that is not clear enough. One action is that we tell the truth about climate change, and we like Greta because she does that too. Then there are a whole lot of actions to ensure that net zero carbon is reached by 2025 – the nature of these actions is up for debate within XR groups and people’s assemblies.

Alan: Hopefully, we’ll get more opportunities to talk about Extinction Rebellion and climate change in the future. But, can you tell me now a bit about future plans for actions by XR?

Pete: XR UK is planning nation-wide actions on 23 May and following weeks. I can’t tell you more about these. In Manchester and the North there will be many more actions before then, addressing issues of local concern. For example, we will be doing actions to get Greater Manchester Pension Fund to divest from fossil fuels. We are also planning an action on Manchester Airport. This last week I’ve been protesting at the open cast coal site at Pont Valley in Durham to stop the mine being extended – we succeeded in stopping work being done at the mine for 3 days.

Alan: Many thanks, Pete…very much to be continued!

Greta’s speech in Bristol at the School Strike, 28th February 2020, as posted on the
Extinction Rebellion Facebook site:https://www.facebook.com/ExtinctionRebellion/videos/2442611239289653/

And here are two more of Colin Rayner’s magnificent photos from Bristol.

This entry was posted on in homepage and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Extinction Rebellion, Greta Thunberg and the Climate Change Crisis

    1. “Offshore wind is developing apace, solar power costs continue to fall, and allowing more onshore wind could make a huge difference. The national grid continues to be electrified, and this needs to be accelerated, and the shift to electric vehicles needs to be more actively promoted by government. Overall, net zero carbon by 2025 still looks unlikely but 2030 seems not only possible but necessary.”

      Yes, and thanks to these events the very ungreen mining of the minerals and rare earth components necessary to build the the aluminium and steel turbine legs and generators are greatly increasing too. Photovoltaic solar panels are totally dependent on mass mining of silicom and the use of child labour to do it. The national grid is a corporate tool for the centralisation of power. Electric vehicles are hugely demanding on electric power – any of this err.. green?? Zero carbon is instant death – as plants can’t live without it and we can’t breathe without plants providing oxygen. I wonder if he might have been thinking of particulates that come out of factory chimneys? And lastly – the whole phony ‘Green Deal’ shabang is in the hands of vast Earth destroying corporations – as are the people who support it! Someone needs a body, mind and spirit detox..

      Comment by Julian on 19 March, 2020 at 6:08 pm

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.