The corporate politics of protest

James Murray
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Extinction Rebellion protesters | Credit: Francesca E. Harris
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Extinction Rebellion protesters | Credit: Francesca E. Harris

Perhaps protestors and businesses are on the same side in the climate fight?

Businesses and environmental protestors tend to have an understandably vexed relationship.

Corporate leaders are more likely to be regarded by protest groups as justifiable targets for a disruptive peaceful protest than as potential allies in the fight for environmental progress and justice. This antipathy is often reciprocated, with some business execs dismissing protestors as unrealistically idealistic at best and dangerously misguided at worse.

Tales of corporate spying on one side and protests that on occasion tip over into vandalism and scare tactics on the other have only served to further pollute this already adversarial relationship. 

The vibrant and high profile launch of the Extinction Rebellion and the huge disruption it brought to central London over the weekend will no doubt have many businesses reviewing their security procedures, on the grounds that protests targeting the government's climate strategy could quickly spread to take in those businesses most closely associated with the high carbon economy. 

However, there is another way to view this protest movement which could help unlock huge benefits for those businesses that are committed to bold climate action. As Lord Adair Turner - an establishment figure if ever there was one - observed on Radio 4 this morning, he's on the same side as the protestors: you are either on board with sufficiently bold action on climate change or you are not. Many businesses signed up to deep decarbonisation targets would argue they are on-board too.

Admittedly, the Rebellion's core demands - a government admission of the scale of the 'ecologial emergency'; a legally-binding net zero emission target for 2025; and democratic reforms to manage such a rapid low carbon transition - sound absurdly, unrealistically ambitious. There is quite simply no way to build a net zero emission economy in eight years. And yet they still perform a valuable purpose. 

The harsh reality is that if the world is to build a net zero emission global economy by 2050 then in an ideal world you probably do want industrialised economies to have secured net zero status as early as 2025. Twenty five years to deploy the technologies they pioneer at a global scale is still an eye-wateringly demanding ask. 

But up until now few people have spoken in these terms. The debate on decarbonisation has been conducted along a spectrum that runs from climate sceptic 'do nothing-ism' at one extreme to climate policy 'realism' at the other, with its still massively ambitious goals to cut emissions 80 per cent by 2050 or deliver on the Paris Agreement's 2C goal.

What the protestors, in conjunction with last week's calls on the other side of the Atlantic for the Democrats to deliver a massively ambitious new Green Deal plan and the IPCC's alarming 1.5C report, have done is stretch this spectrum out to include truly radical climate hawk proposals. A vision for what has to be done, rather than a vision for what is deemed realistic. 

The hope has to be that in volatile times this approach, coupled with the bravery and raw drama of peaceful protest (and it is critical it stays peaceful for any of this to work), and the ever more visible and tragic impacts of climate change of which the catastrophically deadly Californian wildfires are the latest example, will serve to shift the Overton Window in favour of ever bolder climate action. 

Given this is precisely what many business leaders have been calling for, there is a strong case for seeing this new wave of protesters as broad allies in the push to build a sustainable economy, even if there will always be disagreement on whether you need to get arrested in order to get there.

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