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The Fight Against Climate Change: Extinction Rebellion’s Approach

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Alexandra Mierzwa
August 1, 2022

Civil disobedience is garnering attention as an innovative method to incite change. Some believe that traditional methods of democratic participation, such as circulating petitions, writing to government officials, lobbying and voting, have proved ineffective in spurring political action due to established political and economic forces. Accordingly, open dissent of governmental policies and decisions has crept to the foreground. This has assumed different forms around the globe, including the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States, WikiLeaks and the Gilets Jaunes, or Yellow Vests movement, in France. In the United Kingdom, the face of civil disruption is Extinction Rebellion (XR). This movement uses protest tactics and non-violent civil disobedience to force political action on climate change and environmental degradation. Extinction Rebellion’s civic activations have rallied followers across the globe, driving increased visibility of the emerging trend of civil disobedience as a democratic tool for affecting change.

Climate change grabs headlines, followed by calls to action. Since the 1970s, the murmur about climate change has grown to a resounding outcry, elevating to a fever pitch in the past 10 years. The International Panel on Climate Change’s “Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C” catalyzed Extinction Rebellion’s germination in the UK. This document, released in October 2018, warned that failing to limit global warming to 1.5°C would have significantly increasing negative impacts on the ecosystem, human health and overall well-being. Shortly after the report’s release, protesters announced a Declaration of Rebellion against the UK government due to legislative inaction to rectify climate change. This event prompted several weeks of public protests, during which XR proclaimed its dedication to increase visibility around climate change to halt mass extinction and minimize social collapse. Protests capitalized shock-value to amass attention: protesters planted trees in the middle of Parliament Square in London and buried a coffin there to represent humanity’s collective future if nothing was done about the climate. They also super-glued themselves to the gates of Buckingham Palace as they read a letter to the Queen, asserting the need for action in the face of climate change. Since these high-profile protests, XR has rapidly developed a semi-decentralized, grassroots network across the globe to organize numerous action- and location-specific groups. XR utilizes the democratic tool of civil disobedience to mobilize citizens to drive the message of the need to combat climate change.

Within its organizational structure, XR encourages participatory democracy. Joining the movement is free, open to anyone and designed to be participatory, decentralized and inclusive. It does not actively recruit participants, but instead asks those seeking to affiliate with the organization to adhere to its values. These values, and the full structure of XR’s Self-Organizing System, also are publicly accessible in the organization’s constitution—a work in progress and open to feedback and edits. This document represents the intended structure of the organization: to shift power from individuals into the system itself: a space that supports people’s climate change-related interests. The organization encourages local groups to execute their own actions as long as they follow the organization’s 10 principles and values. The decentralized structure enables people to focus on particular themes, such as “actions,” “fundraising,” “legal support,” or “regenerative culture” or create affiliations based around shared identities, like XR farmers or XR Muslims. To that end, each group is autonomous and self-governing, with its own self-agreed mandate and strategy. These mandates are published and shared with XR’s overseeing body, as well as with every other group affiliated with the organization. There are approximately 485 XR groups spread across more than 70 countries. Funding and resources are owned and controlled by the Executive Body of XR unless delegated to another role, team or group. Despite its immense global network of groups, Extinction Rebellion encourages participatory democracy among its members.

XR seems like an anomaly: the movement has used civil disobedience to catapult climate change to the forefront of the international community, while maintaining participatory democracy within its organizational structure. While no policy action has been directly linked to XR activities, the movement’s actions have brought attention to climate change and the idea of citizens’ assemblies. Due to a resounding outcry from citizens and groups like XR, the attention drawn to climate change and citizens’ assemblies has culminated in institutional policy change. Understanding this unique structure provides insight into how non-governmental groups can maximize harnessing citizen participation and grassroots groups to render institutions more responsive to their needs. XR is a case proving that civil disobedience and participatory democracy are compatible, and can influence institutions to become more responsive to their citizens’ needs.

To learn more about this case, visit https://participedia.net/case/6041. To read about other innovative applications of public participation, visit www.participedia.net.


Author: Alexandra Mierzwa is pursuing a master’s degree in public administration with a specialization in international and development administration and a certificate in advanced studies in conflict and collaboration at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. She is passionate about collaborative governance to empower citizens so they can make institutions more responsive to their needs. Prior to Maxwell, she worked in advocacy communications for a public affairs firm in Brussels, Belgium and worked on corporate social responsibility communications for Disneyland Paris.

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