Why Climate Activism May Look Different in 2023

4 minute read

Back in 2018, a group of British climate activists started purposefully breaking the law, blocking roads and gluing themselves to government buildings in the name of cutting carbon emissions. The group responsible, Extinction Rebellion, swiftly rose to international notoriety thanks to those radical stunts. To some observers, they were heroes. Others said they alienated more people than they won over.

These methods of “civil resistance” spread far and wide in the following years, and they reached unprecedented prevalence in 2022. In New York last year, activists blockaded roadways and organized sit-ins at corporate headquarters. In the U.K. and Germany, campaigns to shut down highways have become commonplace. Extinction Rebellion took part in some actions, helping to block access to oil facilities in the U.K., for instance. But much of the year’s most notorious stunts—including throwing tomato soup on Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers—were undertaken by newer, more radical climate groups like Britain’s Just Stop Oil and Germany’s Last Generation.

Then, last week, Extinction Rebellion released a surprising announcement: they were giving up the ghost. “As we ring in the new year, we make a controversial resolution to temporarily shift away from public disruption as a primary tactic,” the group wrote in a New Year’s Eve announcement entitled “We Quit.” Instead, these U.K.-based activists will now focus on organizing large-scale protests without so much focus on breaking the law. “This year, we prioritise attendance over arrest and relationships over roadblocks,” they wrote.

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It’s a dramatic rebrand for one of the progenitors of the radical protest movement—something like Batman hanging up his cape to take a position as a public prosecutor. Some observers point to proposed draconian restrictions on protest in the U.K. as the likely reason for the strategy shift. “It’s not that the protests don’t achieve the objective that they desire,” says Eric Arnum, an activist working with multiple climate protest groups. “It‘s that the protests are proving too costly to the people involved.”

But it’s also hard to avoid the perception that Extinction Rebellion is doing this because, after four years of campaigning, they’ve realized that the strategy simply isn’t working, or that they’ve decided that other, younger groups have gone too far. Civil resistance generated more attention than ever before last year, but the groups shutting down roadways aren’t exactly popular. More people in the U.K. disapprove of Extinction Rebellion than support it, according to YouGov polling, and more than three times more people opposed Just Stop Oil’s tactics of blocking roadways than agreed with them, according to a separate poll in November.

Since the announcement, representatives from Extinction Rebellion have bent over backwards to say they still support the roadblocks and paint throwing of their more radical peers. And those groups have certainly not given any indication that they’re countenancing a strategy shift. Activists in Germany’s Last Generation say they’re going to continue to block motorways in 2023. In the U.K., Just Stop Oil members say they will up the ante. “We are barreling down the highway to the loss of ordered civil society,” says a spokesperson. “It is time to escalate.”

Some climate activists say that Extinction Rebellion is simply ceding radical ground to younger upstarts. “In some sense they’re the moderate organization now,” says Shayok Mukhopadhyay, a spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion NYC (The group is independent from the original Extinction Rebellion, based in the U.K.).

But there’s still something of a sense in Extinction Rebellion’s announcement that the group is questioning the basic assumptions that animate the civil resistance movement. “Despite the blaring alarm on the climate and ecological emergency…very little has changed,” the U.K. group wrote. Until now, many of the loudest voices in climate activism have insisted that the worsening climate situation had to be met with increasingly extreme tactics, mainly carried out by small groups of hard-core supporters. Many of them still do. But Extinction Rebellion’s move could mark the beginning of a tone shift for climate activists in the coming year, away from small-scale, controversial stunts, and toward the sort of huge mass protests which, historically, have been almost impossible for leaders to ignore.

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Write to Alejandro de la Garza at alejandro.delagarza@time.com