Environmental Activism or Environmental Extremism

Environmental Activism or Environmental Extremism


Several peaceful protest organisations including Extinction Rebellion (XR), Greenpeace and Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament have all recently been included in police counter-terror documents and been labelled as ‘key threats’ (Grierson and Scott: 2020). Although it has been said that the document was designed to help de-radicalisation efforts, the inclusion of such environmental and pacifist groups on a list alongside well-known terrorists, white nationalists, far-right and neo-Nazi hate groups, has been heavily criticised. Similarly, adding groups such as Extinction Rebellion (XR) as part of the Prevent programme, which trains teachers and others who work with young and vulnerable people to spot the signs of radicalisation has raised further questions.

The growing criticism is therefore mainly due to the grouping of environmental activists and campaigners together with terrorist organisations. Is this going to help fight terrorism? Or does it rather threaten the right of individuals to engage in peaceful protest on such a concerning issue like that of the current climate crisis? The current climate issues are increasingly becoming a serious threat to the world. Millions of people are already suffering from the catastrophic effects of extreme disasters exacerbated by climate change. This is most evident in the global South which has already witnessed prolonged drought in sub-Saharan Africa to devastating tropical storms and floods across Southeast Asia (Amnesty International, n.d.). Such environmental disasters are therefore going to further magnify already existing inequalities. The continuous climate change devastations, therefore, make it a necessity now more than ever, to take action and hold governments and businesses accountable particularly when the top 100 companies are responsible for over 70% of the world’s global greenhouse gas emissions (Riley:2017).

Urgent action from environmental organisations has played a significant role in bringing some of these issues to light and particularly in bringing attention to climate conversations. Subsequently, the central question that comes to mind is: can such organisations be labelled as extremists/radical? Or are they simply activists, putting pressure on the government to tackle the pressing issue of climate change?

Bringing the Climate Crisis to the Centre

Let’s take a closer look at Extinction Rebellion (XR) which has established itself as one of the UK’s highest-profile environmental campaign groups (Bell:2019). Launched in October 2018, they have engaged in various acts of civil disobedience in London, attracting media attention and public support (Gunningham:2019: 196). Their representatives have also been able to meet government ministers and spoken to MP’s. Civil disobedience and protests have helped raise concerns over green issues to a record high in the UK, most evident is the UK government recently declaring a climate change emergency. Mr Hooper, an XR campaigner in Plymouth, said “breakdown of our climate was the biggest threat humankind faces”, adding: “How can demanding the government listen to the science be considered extreme?” (Morris: 2020). There is no doubt that therefore XR’s actions over the past couple years have brought the climate crisis to the forefront.

A Step Too Far?

Nonetheless, XR’s protests, particularly their tactic of mass disobedience and major disruption, have caused grievances for the majority of the general public. Their shutting down of Westminster in October last year caused major disruption for thousands who commute every day into central London simply for work and university etc. Also, disruption at Canning Town station, located in Newham, one of London’s poorest boroughs, highlights the public’s growing frustration with the movement and the groups lack of empathy for everyday working people (Hinsliff: 2019). Moreover, commuters were especially confused by the environmental protest that targeted one of the most environmentally friendly ways to travel around London.

There has also been growing criticism for XR’s method of encouraging individuals to deliberately get arrested. Not only does it reinforce the overall lack of diversity in the movement, but also the lack of acknowledging the certain privileges that come with being able to protest and protesting in general. Extreme methods such as getting arrested, this further alienates many ethnic minorities from the movement. For many minorities and coloured people, particularly those who are black, getting arrested by the police deliberately is not something one would actively choose to do especially when many individuals have attempted to avoid criminalisation in general (Cowan: 2019). Why? The risks, police brutality, unfair treatment, just to name a few of the possible reasons.


It is evident that XR has undoubtedly been a significant player in contemporary climate conversations in the UK and overall in bringing the issue to the forefront. Furthermore, it is clear that civil disobedience does not equate to terrorism, therefore XR, and other organisations calling to protect our environment should not be labelled as such. However, we can not ignore the mass disruption and annoyances that XR’s actions have caused for many people. Their tactics have, to a large extent, resulted in diminishing the underlying message behind their activism in the first place: the need to protect our environment. It is fair to thus argue that perhaps XR needs to be more dynamic in their strategy and approach particularly if they want to lessen divisions and continue gaining support for such an important cause.


– Amnesty International, n.d.: https://www.amnesty.org/en/what-we-do/climate-change/ (Amnesty International. n.d. “Climate Change: The Biggest Human Rights Violation In History?”. Amnesty.Org. Accessed April 2. https://www.amnesty.org/en/what-we-do/climate-change/.)
– Johnathon Morris, (2020): https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-devon-51160654
– Bell, Karen (2019): https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/11/a-working-class-green-movement-is-out-there-but-not-getting-the-credit-it-deserves
– Cowan, Leah (2019) https://gal-dem.com/extinction-rebellion-risk-trampling-climate-justice-movement/
– Grierson, Jamie and Scott, Russell (2020): https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jan/19/extinction-rebellion-listed-as-key-threat-by-counter-terror-police
– Gunningham, Neil (2019), ‘Averting Climate Catastrophe: Environmental Activism, Extinction Rebellion and Coalitions of Influence. Environmental Justice in the Anthropocene Routledge, King’s Law Journal Vol.30, No.2 (196)
– Hinsliff, Gaby (2019) https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/oct/17/extinction-rebellion-canning-town-well-off-people
– Riley, Tess (2017): https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2017/jul/10/100-fossil-fuel-companies-investors-responsible-71-global-emissions-cdp-study-climate-change


About the author
Nimo Mohamed is currently a MSc Emerging Economies and international Development student at King’s College London. She previously studied BA History and Arabic at SOAS, University of London where she spent a year studying and working in Egypt. She has experience in the third sector working primarily with NGO’s both in the UK and abroad helping those most vulnerable in our society. Her main interests lie in international relations, policy, human rights as well as conflict resolution and displacement, particularly within the MENA and Africa regions. Through the internship with IARS she hopes to further develop practical skills whilst working on exciting projects.

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