Extinction Rebellion: Who are they and what do they want?

Disclaimer: As Joe is part of Extinction Rebellion, he naturally believes in their demands. As such, this article has slight biases. However, all information is referenced, cited, and fact-checked. It is also worth noting that Joe’s involvement with the movement perhaps lends greater credibility to his writing than biased media sources. As always, however, it is up to the reader to form their own conclusions and do further research if they want to (links at bottom of page!)


Extinction Rebellion will kick off a new wave of protests on Tuesday 1st September in London, Manchester and Cardiff, timed to coincide with the beginning of the new session of the UK Parliament. [1] Mass protests are also planned in multiple other countries across the world throughout September and October.

Author’s Note by Joe Hesmondhalgh: I’ve been a part of Extinction Rebellion for just under two years now and will be taking part in the upcoming protests. People have a wide range of associations with XR which have come about through media and social media or through direct experience of the group. Here, I’ll try to briefly explain XR as best I can from the perspective of someone inside the movement.

Why protest?

The main motive behind Extinction Rebellion’s protests is that governments across the world are failing to take action on the climate crisis and ecological emergency. In fact, they are catastrophically failing and have been for decades.

The Earth’s average annual temperature is already 1.1 Celsius higher than it was in the 1850s (before humans started emitting significant amounts of warming gases) and most scientists agree that we have to limit this figure to 1.5 Celsius [2] to avoid the most irreversible and dangerous effects like food shortages, mass flooding, increases in the frequency and severity of storms, many parts of the planet becoming impossible to live in and social collapse.

The World Meteorological Organisation has recently said there’s a 20% possibility this crucial mark will be broken before 2024. [3] Yes, that’s less than five years away. Alongside this are warnings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) that one million species are at risk of extinction in the near future. [4]

Is there a solution? 

Scientists agree that we need an urgent and rapid reduction in the amount of greenhouse gases, like CO2 and methane, that we emit across the world. But because such an urgent and rapid reduction will be expensive and difficult, governments need to take quick, decisive and large-scale action as well as communicating the urgency of the crisis to the public.

So far, sadly, they have completely failed to do this. And sadly, so far, environmental activists have also largely been failing to change this inaction by governments for decades. [5]

Extinction Rebellion was founded on the principle that when a government fails in its duty to protect the wellbeing and life of its citizens, and other attempts to change this have been exhausted, the citizens have a right and a duty to rebel against the government to try and change the failing system. So that’s what we are doing.

But what does it mean to “rebel”? 

“Rebelling”, for XR, consists of purposefully rejecting government authority by participating in what is called “non-violent mass civil disobedience and disruption”.

This might be a mouthful but it has a simple meaning: large numbers of people purposefully breaking the law and/or disrupting the government without causing harm to anyone.

For example, this could mean being somewhere you’re not allowed to be (a “mass trespass”), vandalising or sabotaging government property or blocking important roads or buildings.

The idea is to give the government a dilemma: either they must arrest thousands of their own citizens simply for protesting an important issue, or they must negotiate with the protesters and comply with what XR want.

If they choose to arrest thousands of people (which, so far, is the option they have taken with XR), this sends a powerful message about the lengths the government is willing to go to in order to avoid taking action, which grows sympathy and support for the movement. Furthermore, at some point, they will simply not have enough holding cells to keep on arresting people.

If they choose to negotiate with our demands: we have won. It is important to emphasise that there are many reasons why people can’t risk arrest so you don’t need to be able take part in arrestable activity to be an important and useful part of XR. 

So what does XR want?

As a movement, Extinction Rebellion UK, has three demands. [6] These are the three things that the government must do before we stop taking part in mass civil disobedience. 

The first of these is that the government must tell the truth about how urgent and drastic the situation we are in is by declaring an “climate and ecological emergency”.

The Scottish Government as well as thousands of organisations and elected bodies around the world have already done this. The point of this is so the public know how serious the situation we’re in is.

The second of the three demands is that the government acts to halt the rapid extinction of species in the UK and around the world as well as reducing UK greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2025. This would mean halting the destruction of habitats and restoring the nature that endangered species need to exist and making sure that whatever greenhouse gas emissions we emit as a country, we would capture an equivalent amount by, for example, planting trees that absorb CO2.

Both of these things have been called “unrealistic” by critics, but XR argue that they are setting their demands based on what the science says is necessary in order to prevent mass extinction and social collapse.

The third and final demand is that the government creates a “Climate Citizens Assembly” to lead the process of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and halting biodiversity loss. 

This would be a representative group of citizens that are selected at random from the UK population to learn about (from experts) and discuss the climate and ecological emergency, and then to create new laws. This is to ensure that the process of reducing greenhouse gases and halting biodiversity loss works democratically for everyone in society: not just the privileged and the powerful.

Citizens Assemblies have been successfully used in countries like France and Ireland so we know they are a fair and effective tool for creating change. [7]

At the 1st September protest, XR UK will be calling on the government to introduce a new law called the “Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill” [8] which would effectively make the three demands law. 

Hopefully I’ve managed to explain why I think XR’s tactics and demands are valid and necessary. If you’ve got any comments or questions, please leave them below. 


[1] https://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/news/extinction-rebellion-plan-wave-of-snap-protests-r9l6v5srf

[2] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-53342806

[3] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-53342806

[4] https://uk.reuters.com/article/us-un-environment-biodiversity/scientists-warn-a-million-species-at-risk-of-extinction-idUKKCN1SC0PJ

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/sep/17/i-now-look-back-on-my-20-years-of-climate-activism-as-a-colossal-failure

[6] https://extinctionrebellion.uk/the-truth/demands/

[7] https://citizensassembly.co.uk/

[8] https://www.ceebill.uk/ (Read more about the Climate and Ecological Bill here!)

Note: Over the next few weeks, we’ll be going into a bit more detail about some of these terms e.g. where the 1.5 degrees limit comes from, looking at France and Ireland’s Citizen’s assemblies, and assessing the idea of democracy, so stay tuned!


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