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January 17, 2023

What will 2023 hold for climate activism?

Climate campaigning reached feverish levels in 2022. Viral videos of motorway and bridge obstructions – orange vests, arms locked – attracted solidarity from some quarters and alienated others.

“We quit,” announced the UK arm of Extinction Rebellion (XR) at the end of last year. The environmental group – which primarily employs civil disobedience as a strategy – has opted to “temporarily shift away from public disruption as a primary tactic” and will prioritise building bridges instead of blocking them.

Public opinion of XR has been mixed, with some approving of their methods to jolt business and political leaders into action. But a YouGov poll conducted in the fourth quarter of 2022 found that the number of people disliking the group was far higher than those supporting it, 41 per cent compared to 18 per cent, respectively. Others had more neutral views.

Other campaigners say they remain committed to more disruptive ways of protesting. Just Stop Oil hosted a meeting on January 12 in response to XR’s strategic pivot. “XR might have quit but for us this isn’t an option,” the event description read. Scheduled speakers included MP and former Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn. 

“It’s 2023 and XR has quit,” a Just Stop Oil spokesperson says. “We are barrelling down the highway to the loss of ordered civil society, as extreme weather impacts tens of millions. As our country becomes unrecognisable, there is now a need to face reality. It is time to escalate, from disobedience into civil resistance.”

The UK government is also weighing in. Soon after the XR announcement, it announced it will be clamping down on “highly disruptive and dangerous protests”. Through a proposed amendment to the Public Order Bill, prime minister Rishi Sunak is expanding the definition of “serious disruption” to allow police to shut down protests “before chaos erupts”.

XR, which has not entirely swapped blockades for tea at Westminster, says it will attempt to amass 100,000 demonstrators outside parliament from April 21 onwards, in a protest dubbed ‘The big one’. “Gathering at the Houses of Parliament day after day in large numbers means we can leave the locks, glue and paint behind,” it says.

Will the government consider this highly disruptive? And, perhaps more importantly, which types of initiatives will be more effective to bring about change?

Unpopular campaigning

The decentralised nature of many activist groups makes any concrete public commitment a challenge to maintain, or even define. Money Rebellion, an XR wing dedicated to campaigning on financial services, has called on activists to plaster their local Barclays branches on January 27-28 with stickers carrying the slogan “In case of climate emergency – break glass”. 

This is being organised after seven protestors were found guilty of criminal damage after they cracked the windows of Barclays’ Canary Wharf headquarters in 2021, an act performed against an institution that Money Rebellion labels “the biggest fossil fuel funder in Europe”. Barclays is the UK largest fossil fuel financier – and the world’s seventh – according to the Banking on Climate Chaos 2022 report, which is compiled by a group of non-profit organisations including the Rainforest Action Network and BankTrack. Globally, it provided $166.7bn in fossil fuel financing between 2016 and 2021, though annual figures have been decreasing.

Barclays – a founding member of the UN-convened Net-Zero Banking Alliance – recently set a target to facilitate $1tn of sustainable and transition financing by the end of 2030.

The protestors, who will be sentenced on January 27, face up to 18 months in prison, the campaign says. “You can jail the resistors, but you can’t jail the resistance,” Money Rebellion says. “We will not stop taking action against Barclays until they stop funding climate breakdown.” Barclays declined to comment.

Not everyone believes direct action and confrontational campaigning methods are the most effective, saying engagement with institutions is a better route. “XR campaigns have not brought people with them and have annoyed the exact sorts of people they need to convince,” Oxford Sustainable Finance Group director Ben Caldecott tells Sustainable Views.

“That damage will persist,” he adds, arguing that XR has “fanned the flames of opposition to some of these issues”. Its strategic pivot is welcome, but “too little, too late”. 

Some forms of engagement with the wider public, however, do appear to have altered corporate strategy. In December 2022, HSBC announced that it would no longer provide upstream finance for new oil and gas fields, a decision that Caldecott suggests has been influenced by civil society engagement. The bank was lobbied by shareholders over its financing of fossil fuels.

Asset owners and managers will continue to review their exposures to the kinds of sectors viewed as undesirable by activists, balancing the need to generate returns with corporate commitments on achieving net zero and supporting social development.

Is divestment the answer?

The Universities Superannuation Scheme, which is the largest pension scheme for UK university staff, regularly meets with the Divest USS movement – a group of scheme members that is calling on the plan to divest from fossil fuels. USS directors have also been sued by two lecturers over alleged inaction surrounding its climate commitments.

The scheme has “relatively cordial discussions” with Divest USS to examine “what they think we should be doing, and frequently, from our perspective, why we can’t do what they think we should do”, says David Russell, head of responsible investment at USS Investment Management. Divestment from all fossil fuels “is not something that we can do from a fiduciary perspective”, he continues.

The USS has a policy of divesting from companies that it deems unsuitable in the long run. Tobacco manufacturers, thermal coal mining – where this constitutes more than a quarter of revenues – as well as cluster munitions, white phosphorus and landmines were all excluded by the scheme in 2020.

The scheme has not had to deal with the disruptive types of protest associated with the likes of XR and Just Stop Oil, Russell says. “We’re not always popular with the [non-governmental organisations] that engage with us,” he says. “In a democratic society, people can choose to demonstrate how they wish, and within the law,” Russell adds. “If they’re outside the law, the law will deal with them, and that’s what we’ve seen with [XR].”

Asset manager Ninety One chooses to engage with companies over climate change, instead of boycotting them, while recognising the efforts of climate activists. “There’s obviously an important role for campaigners drawing attention through different means to issues,” says Daisy Streatfeild, sustainability director at Ninety One. “There’s an interesting communications exercise that investors need to do in terms of what really makes a difference.”

The asset manager does not exclude investments negatively linked to climate change and to net zero objectives. “We don’t believe that has as much impact as remaining invested in these companies that are currently high carbon, to influence their transition to low carbon,” Streatfeild says.

“It would be very easy, if we wanted to avoid [confrontation from campaigning groups such as XR], just to sell our shares in Shell, or whoever is on their target list,” she continues. “But in doing so, we would have made our money from selling those shares and not made the slightest bit of difference to how Shell operates, and we don’t think that’s the best way to have impact.”

Photo credit: Remko de Waal/Getty Images

A service from the Financial Times