Friends In Need

This article was first published at Reuters Breaking Views.

Extinction Rebellion and Davos sound like odd bedfellows. Why would a direct-action campaign, increasingly visible in the United Kingdom for warning starkly about the climate emergency, want to rub shoulders with the global financial elite at its main annual forum in Switzerland? The answer is that robust green activism turns out, when you think it through, to be high finance’s best friend.

Extinction Rebellion (XR) is a mass movement which, in the face of the climate crisis, is prepared to take any non-violent means necessary to force a truthful national and global conversation. It’s no coincidence it started in Britain. The Industrial Revolution triggered what has grown into dangerous climate change, and as a nation we have a greater historical responsibility to right the resulting wrongs. Today 15% of global fossil-finance flows pass through the City of London, according to the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit. With the next major U.N. climate conference, COP26, due to take place in Glasgow in November, the UK is only going to be more in the spotlight.

XR has three demands. First, we all need to tell the truth about the extreme, long emergency we face together. Second, we need to act now to address that emergency: we must bring climate-deadly emissions and biodiversity destruction down to net zero by 2025, and globally by about 2030. Targets weaker than these are very unlikely to keep us within the “safe operating space” for humanity. Finally, we need to give citizens’ assemblies the power to decide how we reach these eye-watering targets. Only a deliberative democratic body that can sift the best expertise can come up with a plan that will yield both political and citizen buy-in.

We have made some progress. Our rebellion last April persuaded Parliament to declare a (purely symbolic) climate and environment emergency. The government then legislated for carbon net-zero – albeit by 2050, which is far too late. Meanwhile, Parliament has also set up a citizens’ climate assembly – albeit one lacking hard power.

This lip service to each of our three demands is a start, but obviously not enough. With the country’s government settled for the time being we expect to turn for a while to the other pillars of the system that are driving us all over a cliff. They are the corporate media – and the world of finance and business.

There was a small taste of the latter during our October rebellion. We spent a day in the City of London, targeting firms such as BlackRock, which has been slow to use its status as the world’s biggest asset manager to drive corporate action. Chief Executive Larry Fink’s letter last week was a start, but little more than that.

But we stress that this does not mean that we are close-minded angry lefties. You don’t have to have any beef with capitalism to understand that there just isn’t the emissions-space left for the kind of carbon-profligacy manifested by, say, private jets. That isn’t a “left-wing” view any more than it was “left-wing” in World War Two to institute food rationing. Such measures are simply common sense in the face of an emergency.

That is why we are now calling for emergency thinking to be put into action. Tokenism will not do. Instead, business leaders need to be brave enough to both admit that XR is right and then support it by, for example, letting their employees have time off to join its rebellion.

Financial support would help too. XR welcomes anyone who is willing to take responsibility for changing the script. Again: qua XR, we are not “anti-capitalists”. If we come and occupy your offices, we’ll probably bring cake. And that’s because what we’re saying is that, if possible, we’d like your business to survive alongside the rest of us – but it can only do so if together we beat the climate crisis.

That’s why we think business should join us in vigorously insisting that the government create a level playing field so that all the economic activity of this country (and beyond) is directed toward achieving stringent, rapid reductions in climate-deadly greenhouse-gas emissions and in habitat destruction.

This should start with an immediate commitment to making company accounts incorporate material climate risks in the numbers, on the balance sheet. Mark Carney is rightly proud of having got these risks into at least the narrative portion of company accounts, but real behaviour change, and real market re-evaluation (as well as revaluation) will not be achieved until the numbers change. Otherwise, narratives like the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures are little more than greenwash. When climate risk actually gets adequately factored into the numbers, it will turn out that some firms are suddenly no longer viable, and have to make way for those that still are. So be it; that’s how capitalism is supposed to work, right?

In summary, we are about system change. The climate crisis is an existential threat to us all. Some of us are going to have to change more than others: BlackRock has more to do than department store John Lewis. But no one is anywhere near where we need to get; we all have to change. So don’t expect that being good or trying hard will immunise you from the demand for further major change. XR started making its name by occupying the offices of Greenpeace – to make the point that even the previous leaders in our own field had not gone nearly far enough.

If and when you are upset because we’ve just invaded your boardroom, please remember: we’re your best friends. We are the ones delivering ever-increasing pressure to help any business compatible with the flourishing of life on Earth to, quite literally, survive. And that’s part of the broader story of seeking to ensure human survival — which is unlikely unless something close to our demands is achieved: here, and then across the world.

This carbon economy is coming to an end. It will either end as a horror story, in an uncontrolled collapse event, or it will end intelligently, deliberately, making way for something better.

If you care about the next generation, or even if you only care about being able to grow old yourself, please join us in helping the outcome be the latter.