Covid-19 won’t stop the climate emergency—but will it stop climate-change protests?

A new tourist attraction.
A new tourist attraction.
Image: Reuters/Carlo Allegri
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Around the world, members of the climate-change activist group Extinction Rebellion have relished in theatrical protests. In the UK, where the movement began in 2018, demonstrators have climbed on top of subway trains at rush hour to disrupt commutes; once they closed down five main bridges across the River Thames and tried to turn them into gardens.

The goal is to use civil disobedience to get governments to commit to quickly reducing carbon emissions. It’s a complex undertaking, but the strategy—of getting large groups of people to cause chaos and not stop until they are arrested—is simple.

Members of the group’s New York City chapter have been as eager as their UK counterparts to disrupt everyday life to draw attention to the climate emergency. Inspired by a demonstration in London that caused public transport disruption and road closures for days, Extinction Rebellion NYC in October parked a boat in Times Square to block traffic; 62 people at the gathering got arrested. The group’s rebels, as they call themselves, have also commandeered the ice rink at Rockefeller Plaza to hold a silent meditation, and staged a “die in” and a “primal scream” in midtown Manhattan in response to the fires that recently swept across the Amazon rainforest.

Extinction Rebellion NYC’s plans for the week of Earth Day (observed on April 22) were no less spectacular. The main event the rebels were trying to pull off was a 24-hour moving blockade on April 23, with 2,000 people surrounding JPMorgan Chase’s headquarters in midtown. But first, the group would celebrate. As part of the second annual Earth Love Festival at House of Yes, a performing arts club in Brooklyn, Extinction Rebellion NYC on April 19 would unveil an intricate, large pink elephant it had started constructing eight months earlier.

Inspired by the set design for the stage production of The Lion King, the elephant was made up of 10 pieces of layered cardboard, each pink on one side and painted on the other to depict different natural disasters such as floods, draughts, fires, and earthquakes. The pieces would be paraded around separately but then brought together to form, literally, the elephant in the room.

But before the pink elephant could get its final touches and a public debut, New Yorkers, along with roughly 3 billion people around the world, were put under various lockdown rules to stop the spread of a novel coronavirus. Now the momentum of Extinction Rebellion NYC has been stopped in its tracks along with much of regular life in New York, with the city’s residents were ordered to stay home and non-essential businesses shuttered to slow the spread of Covid-19.

What more can climate rebels do when they can no longer meet on the streets and grab attention with mass arrests?

A radical disruption not of their own making

As people start to imagine life after the immediate crisis of the pandemic subsides, there is a question about what kind of a society we proceed into. Is it one in which governments and companies cooperate to uphold decent living standards for all of society? Or does a more destructive form of capitalism emerge that is bent on restoring economic growth as quickly as possible at whatever social cost? The same types of questions apply to the environment.

There is a danger that promises about climate change will be cast aside in the name of a speedy economic recovery and job creation, or that the public health crisis will provide cover for environmentally destructive actions. For example, the US Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration is proposing to ease its enforcement and regulatory procedures, and construction has begun again on the long-stalled Keystone XL pipeline. Meanwhile, the United Nations’ massive COP 26 climate-change conference—where countries were meant to review their pledges to restrict global warming—has been postponed into next year.

Even in normal times, getting just one government to address a specific issue is challenging enough. Climate change has required global cooperation, which has so far been elusive. The responses to the pandemic don’t provide a hopeful signal for the future of cross-border collaboration, making the demands of climate activists—who have been accused in the past of being naive—seem all the more out of reach.

But as the shutting down of businesses, manufacturing, and travel leads to a noticeable improvement in air quality in some of the world’s most polluted places, the pandemic also is proving it’s possible to radically disrupt economies in the face of an emergency and refocus productivity.

“I feel like Mother Earth hears us and is helping us out in the way that she can by creating the disruption that we were planning to do for us,” said Extinction Rebellion NYC activist Cindi Clark, who joined the movement a year ago and is largely credited, by seemingly everyone but her, with hatching the idea for the large pink elephant. “We don’t have to disrupt anything, everything is already disrupted right now,” she said.

Four demands

“I miss our elephant,” Clark said as she turned back from the window of her 19th-floor apartment in midtown Manhattan. New York’s stay-at-home order had been in place for 11 days and Clark had just finished delivering one of Extinction Rebellion’s orientation calls over Zoom, the video conferencing software. Only one person had dialed in.

Clark’s involvement in the activist world was more accidental than planned. Initially, she had intended to go back to work as a massage therapist after she’d finished homeschooling her daughter. But when her daughter went off to college, Clark found Extinction Rebellion and ended up volunteering full-time for the group. “I’m not a hardcore activist,” she said. But Clark is a regular attendee of Extinction Rebellion NYC’s arts group and she dedicates hours to doing administrative work and running orientation calls to welcome new members. The first time Clark was arrested was on Black Friday last year. While holiday shoppers began their annual splurges in earnest, Extinction Rebellion protesters had blocked the streets outside of Macy’s in midtown Manhattan.

Extinction Rebellion has three global demands of governments: 1) that they “tell the truth” by declaring a climate emergency; 2) that they “act now” to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025; and 3) that they create a Citizens’ Assembly to address climate justice.

In the US, the movement has added a fourth demand: “a just transition that prioritizes the most vulnerable people and indigenous sovereignty.” This plank of the platform, which calls for “reparations and remediations” for the indigenous, the poor, and people of color, is also an acknowledgment of one of the main criticisms of Extinction Rebellion: that it is too white and middle class. This is the group’s own elephant in the room and a point of contention with other climate activists in New York.

Protest choreography

While Extinction Rebellion has used creative ways to announce its demands, each action boils down to a large-scale, very public, nonviolent disruption of everyday life. If the group can get 3.5% of the population mobilized into protesting in the streets, it will have reached the point at which nonviolent actions historically have not failed, according to Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist at Harvard University who studies civil resistance.

Coordinated, nonviolent action requires a lot of strategic planning. Behind the scenes of each Extinction Rebellion action, there is a complicated web of neighborhood groups, interest subgroups, and affinity groups organizing everything from outreach, press, technology, and art. The protests are rehearsed, and members of the movement attend a “nonviolent direct action training” session before taking part in one.

Extinction Rebellion activists cite the organized efforts of the US civil rights movement and of ACT UP—the HIV/AIDS activist group that held mass die-ins and in 1992 scattered ashes of victims on the White House lawn in a “political funeral”—as examples of how bold tactics have succeeded in the past.

Getting arrested is a deliberate act for Extinction Rebellion’s rebels. The police give plenty of warnings; the activists make the choice to ignore them. Extinction Rebellion leaders acknowledge that being able to choose to be arrested is a form of white privilege; they acknowledge that the relationship white activists have with the police is very different to the one many people of color have.

During a training session in early March, members learned about different types of blockades and the different charges they can warrant. A soft block (i.e. arms linked together) will get you a violation; a hard block (i.e. chaining or gluing yourself to something) will result in a higher misdemeanor charge. With trainers acting as police, the attendees practice a roadblock and die in. Greg Schwedock, the session’s leader, reminds them “You are putting on a show” and there must be the discipline to stay in the choreography, to stay on message.

But how will Extinction Rebellion keep up the momentum without any choreography? The training and other meetings had been effective methods of engagement. At a pre-lockdown session in March, there were ten attendees; three had never had any involvement with Extinction Rebellion before. One man who was visiting New York from Washington DC hadn’t even attended a march before. His first taste of activism was roleplaying being arrested.

Jonathan Minard, a 34-year-old filmmaker who first got involved with Extinction Rebellion NYC last April said he was ambivalent about joining the movement until he went to a nonviolent direct action training and attended the first action during which he got arrested. “It wasn’t until I was sitting in jail that I felt a sense of belonging,” he said.

The challenge of digital disruptions

Extinction Rebellion’s first big effort at an online “disruption” was an April Fool’s Day joke targeted at Google. The tech giant itself is known for its annual pranks, but amid a pandemic there was a general consensus that April Fool’s Day was effectively canceled this year.

Extinction Rebellion built a copy-cat website with the URL agreenergoogle.com, featuring a fake statement supposedly from Google CEO Sundar Pichai. “We will stop our funding of organizations that deny or work to block action on climate change, effective immediately,” it declared.

The website got 165,000 unique visitors, according to Extinction Rebellion, and even fooled some employees of Google. Bill Beckler, a member of Extinction Rebellion’s outreach group and a coordinator of the tech group that was behind the prank, said it worked because it held many of the same elements of a street action: namely, that it involved a major time investment by the people who carried it out and it was both disruptive and highly visible.

The group has struggled to come up with many more ideas for digital actions. Achieving visibility and holding the moral high ground remain important priorities, Beckler said. Plus there is a concern that disruptive actions online could come with greater repercussions from law enforcement. For example, denial-of-service attacks, which temporarily block access to a website by overwhelming it with traffic, are illegal and perpetrators could be convicted to years-long prison sentences and fines into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. “The people that do them are usually in a position where they don’t get caught and that means that you lose the moral high ground,” Beckler said. Extinction Rebellion’s principles, on the other hand, insist that the rebels take ownership of their disruption.

On April 19, the day the pink elephant was supposed to have made its debut, a group of Extinction Rebellion activists operating as “Rebel Ringers” called nearly 2,000 of the movement’s New York City-based members to see how they were doing. The idea was to check in ahead of Earth Week but also in the spirit of the movement’s “Alone Together” message encouraging social-distancing during the pandemic. Instead of the blockade around JPMorgan, Extinction Rebellion NYC organized a social media “swarm,” in which rebels would feverishly post on Twitter and Instagram coordinated messages targeted at the bank, as well as BlackRock and Liberty Mutual, to encourage them to stop financing fossil-fuel projects.

Chenoweth and others have been building a database of demonstrations of dissent and collective action during the pandemic. Just 39 of the 137 actions on the crowdsourced list so far were carried out online. And most weren’t particularly radical. Webinars, film screenings, online petitions, and even virtual rallies don’t tend to produce the visceral effect of a well-planned action in the streets. It’s simply much harder to engage people online, where the competition for people’s attention is fierce.

One of Extinction Rebellion NYC’s strategies was to use the time everyone is spending at home to increase training. The House of Yes moved its Brooklyn festival online for the three days after Earth Day; during a two-hour slot on April 25, Extinction Rebellion led a workshop on how Citizens’ Assemblies can achieve their goals. The session was scheduled for at 2 pm on a Saturday; when the workshop began, there were only 19 viewers across Facebook, YouTube, and Twitch.

What happens next?

According to one Rebel Ringer, Extinction Rebellion’s New York City chapter has about 8,000 email addresses of interested advocates, about a quarter of whom have already been through some type of education or training with the group.  If you follow the 3.5% rule, Extinction Rebellion needs more than 290,000 of New York City’s population to take part in regular demonstrations.

Beckler would argue the pandemic, while complicating the plans for protests, has widened the movement’s appeal.

“We’re getting a different demographic of people who want to be engaged with our activities as newcomers,” Beckler said. “My belief is that Covid is unlocking a psychological block for people to appreciate the impact of climate change. The idea of catastrophe and of an irresponsible government who will cause it is becoming a lot more plausible to more people.”

Extinction Rebellion is planning to get back out on the streets as soon as it’s legal to do so. Beckler wondered aloud whether gathering in and of itself soon would be seen as a form of protest. If the protests are seen as dangerous to public health, they could become another polarizing factor about the movement—and yet another form of disruption.