Conflict over Political Response to Climate Change: Extinction Rebellion versus Yellow Vest

It is consensus among students of conflict resolution that many emerging conflicts are influenced by climate change. However, it seems that two current social movements in Europe are responding to the political response to addressing climate change; Extinction Rebellion in the UK and the Yellow Vests movement in France. Extinction Rebellion is a response to political inaction in the UK will the Yellow Vests movement is a response to the seemingly unjust political response to address climate change. The relevant question brought up in Ramsbotham’s Contemporary Conflict Resolution in the final chapter is are political institutions capable of dealing with emerging conflict?” One conflict the political institutions are more used to, that is the Yellow Vests who are motivated to protest by the current economic condition. The nuance here is that the solution cannot just be to alleviate the current economic condition, but to also appease those that believe a reduction in oil consumption is necessary. The question is, who should carry the burden? The other conflict is definitely a “more new” emergent political conflict, those in Extinction Rebellion who are motivated because ‘we are in the midst of a mass extinction of our own making’ yet this is not a political priority in UK Parliament. For specific background, Extinction Rebellion was compelled to steer the political conversation in UK Parliament away from the insane preoccupation with Brexit and towards solutions to climate change and did so through disruptive tactics such as glueing themselves to public transport and shutting down bridges (Extinction Rebellion). However, it seems that it is a proportional response to the inability (or more so unwillingness) of the political institutions to recognize climate change as a political priority.  

However, it seems that the protesters are still dissatisfied with the government’s response because they did not meet their demand to create a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice. Therefore, it seems that this movement does not believe the current political institution in the UK is capable of addressing climate change. The Parliament should be inspired by previous examples of institutions instituting mechanisms to better consider critical voices. One example is how the World Bank successfully minimized conflict from civil society between 1990 and today by integrating civil society space into the Annual and Spring Meetings. According to an interview I conducted with John Garrison, former head of Global Civil Society Team at World Bank, on April 17, 2019, this is evidently successful because there has not been a push from civil society participants in the last five years to further formalize civil society engagement during the Meetings. However, he conceded that the degree to which civil society voice in these forums actually influences Bank policy is still up for debate. It is worth mentioning that while there are no formal protections of civil society actors within the Annual Meetings according to Mr. Garrison, meaning that civil society delegates are vulnerable to state retaliation upon returning to their country if they make a targeted statement within the civil society space, there has not been a push to formalize protections.

Going back to social mobilization to address conflict I consider Ramsbotham’s emphasis that that hope for the future is the prerequisite for community, and that community in the human family is necessary to successfully address conflict. I am not fully convinced this pattern is relevant in all cases of addressing conflict, namely when the conflict is about how to address future conflict (climate change). Ramsbotham specifically says, “The human family should look at the future with hope - the prerequisite for community - and not despair - the incubator of violence.” This is up for debate in the context of Extinction Rebellion. It seems that the Extinction Rebellion family is mobilized by the despairing future of the planet, not the hope that it will be resolved. Their rhetoric exemplifies common despair more than hope, “scientists agree we have entered a period of abrupt climate breakdown, and we are in the midst of a mass extinction of our own making.” However, it could be argued that their tactics (such as glueing themselves to public transport, shutting down bridges) are more violent, or at least disruptive, than previous climate change movements. In this case common despair seems like a motivation for community. Therefore, mobilization of social movements around tackling future problems seems not to follow this pattern strictly. However, it is disputed, even Jane Goodall pitched in with an indirect comment through a NowThis interview by emphasizing that people are mobilized to care about the environment through stories not disruption.

Julia Grifferty