As we contemplate the havoc being wrought by coronavirus, most of us see mainly sickness, death and economic ruin. Dr Rupert Read, spokesman for the climate protest group Extinction Rebellion — plus sometime Green party candidate, and associate professor of philosophy at the University of East Anglia — has rather a different view. In this pandemic, he writes, ‘there is a huge opportunity for XR… It is essential that we do not let this crisis go to waste.’
Read’s thoughts are set out in a paper entitled ‘Some strategic scenario-scoping of the coronavirus-XR nexus.’ The paper is not meant to be widely read. ‘NB, this is a confidential document for internal XR use, NOT for publication!’ he writes at the head.
Small wonder. After all, says Read, even if the gloomiest projections of national and global mortality turn out to be accurate, ‘the direct risk to most of us from corona is low, and the direct risk to humanity is low in the sense that even a very bad case scenario of a hundred million deaths, though horrible, would hardly break us.’
Read says that the virus ‘may overwhelm some healthcare systems’, including Britain’s NHS — in which case, ‘many of those who then need medical treatment, ill and old people especially, will not be able to get it, and some/many of them will die.’
But there is a bright side, he insists, because the virus will also test the ‘vulnerable, just-in-time systems’ of trade. This, in turn, ‘might set off cascading breakdown effects, given how interconnected we have allowed our global system to become, how fragile and un-resilient many of our systems are, and how close to the edge some of them are already. Corona might lead indirectly to partial or complete collapses, especially in more vulnerable countries.’
That is a prospect Read seems to relish. If, he writes, ‘the government tries to stimulate the economy to counter the corona-induced stock-market crash… we should firmly reply (if necessary, including via actions) that it is unacceptable to use the coronavirus as an excuse for more harmful economic growths [sic] that will simply exacerbate an under-lying eco-crisis that is also killing right now.’
This, he goes on, is ‘the government’s most vulnerable point. The corona crisis makes clear what we climate activists have seen for years: that the government isn’t coming to save us… it is possible that the entire system may be weakened by this. The likes of Trump and Johnson, in their dire failure to have acted precautiously so as to protect citizens, might find themselves far more vulnerable, within months.’
Read is a leader of an extremely fashionable cause. XR receives donations from all sorts of affluent people. Its leaders are often interviewed by the BBC, and Read himself has been a guest on Question Time. Notoriously, last year, even as its ‘rebel’ hoards brought London to a standstill, XR was granted an audience with Michael Gove.
You don’t have to be a climate change sceptic to find this puzzling. Last year, a report by Policy Exchange’s Security and Extremism unit showed persuasively — purely on the basis of the XR leadership’s own utterances — that the movement’s ultimate aims are ‘the breakdown of democracy and the state’. Most of its followers, the report added, ‘are completely unaware of this objective, despite it being readily espoused by their leaders… Celebrities, politicians and members of the public have been seduced into believing that Extinction Rebellion’s methods and tactics are honourable and justified, when clearly they are not.’
XR’s leaders have said many times that they want to abolish parliament and capitalism. They have declared war on modernity, and although aviation accounts for just 2 per cent of global CO2 emissions, nothing would please them more than to see commercial flying abolished, or at least drastically curtailed. The virus’s leap from animals to humans at a Wuhan wetmarket has nothing to do with global warming, but XR thinks the pandemic is Gaia’s punishment for our profligate, consumerist lifestyles.
Moreover, when it speaks to itself in private, XR makes no secret of the way it mobilises support — through fear, exaggeration and protests. Another XR document I have acquired is a record of recent discussions by its ‘Action Strategy Group’, which set out ‘core principles and projects’ it thinks ‘essential’ for the coming months.
Among the group’s ‘top ideas’ are to ‘scare’ people by stressing the ‘fear of death, famine, air pollution… fear of hell, hell on earth, fire floods’, with ‘children and vulnerable people on the front line’. This year, the same document says, XR must be ready to embrace what it calls ‘extreme sacrifice’, arguing: ‘We must encourage more extreme actions to achieve meaningful change… Extreme self-sacrificial actions can act as a vanguard for the movement, inspiring people in their rebellious journey and focusing the world’s attention.’
What might they consist of? No half-measures here: A ‘hunger strike to the death’, and possibly ‘one person [committing] suicide’ in a public place such as the London Stock Exchange. An XR spokeswoman said these proposals were ‘brainstorming’, and that the group would ‘not encourage anyone to put their own life at risk’.
Rupert Read is a bit of an expert at what that document calls ‘fear visioning’. In October, notwithstanding XR’s insistence that its claims are based on science, he told hundreds of children at the Schools Climate Conference at University College London that the damage of global warming was so great it no longer made sense to ask them what they wanted to do when they grew up. Instead, he insisted, ‘We have reached a point in human history where we have to ask, “What are you going to do if you grow up?”’
Dr Tamsin Edwards, a distinguished — and very much non-sceptical — climate scientist from Kings College London, expressed horror when Read posted his lecture online: ‘Rupert, I am shocked at this talk. Please stop telling children they may not grow up due to climate change,’ she tweeted. ‘It is WRONG… I thought you wanted to be supported by evidence… I sincerely hope you no longer tell such untruths as “IF you grow up” and that you will now take it offline.’
She was wasting her time. ‘It is not wrong,’ Read replied. ‘You have no expertise that can show it is wrong… MANY will die.’
This is the context in which Read sets out the ‘opportunity’ presented by the pandemic. During the spring and early summer, Read says, when the crisis is at its peak, XR should concentrate on ‘helping communities remain as corona-free as possible, and helping ensure that those who get infected get help as much as possible’. Admirably, its members should ‘ensure that the vulnerable and those in self-quarantine are not abandoned (countering loneliness).’
Having built up a resultant stock of good will, ‘the moment to make these very real parallels, between climate and corona, is when the virus starts to wane. Because that is when there will suddenly be a collective sigh of relief, and huge ideological forces will swing into action to say: start shopping and jetting again, go back to “life as normal”. That is the moment when we need to say (in words, and actions): let’s not jump from the frying pan of coronavirus to the fire of climate cataclysm.’
According to Read, when the crisis begins to pass, XR must ‘seek to continue the silver linings of the corona tragedy: the massively reduced carbon emissions… The moment that siren voices call for a return to business as usual, that is the moment to say NO and to offer/insist on a better alternative.’ People will see that the virus was ‘a dry run’ for the climate emergency, and this will make XR’s demands ‘more pertinent than ever’. Asked about his paper, Read added: ‘It would be a gross collective dereliction of duty if we were not as a nation to learn from this coronavirus. The crisis it has imposed upon us should be used to ensure that we make ourselves less vulnerable to future crises: whether future pandemics, or the climate crisis. That’s just common sense.’
Extreme as Read and his cohorts are, there is every sign that other influential figures are beginning to argue on similar lines — that the post-crisis world needs to be both different and less enjoyable, with things such as cheap foreign holidays, easy mobility and rising standards of living consigned to the past.
‘When the corona crisis is over, we’ll remember there’s something infinitely worse and more destructive hanging over us: the threat to our planet,’ the veteran BBC reporter — and inveterate earner of air miles — John Simpson tweeted last week. According to the Oxford historian Peter Frankopan, the days of a ‘me-first world’ may be over, and if they are, ‘one beneficiary will be the climate: after all, the world’s lungs are already breathing more easily thanks to the collapse of industrial production’.
How a populace picking itself up after months of lockdown to survey a bleak vista of impoverishment and economic devastation may view such messages when the time comes remains to be seen. It may depend on whether, with hindsight, the measures now being taken are seen as justified — or, as some are already arguing, as a catastrophic overreaction, which slightly prolonged the lives of a relatively small number of old and infirm people at an almost unimaginable cost. Either way, Read’s thoughts are a guide to the coming battlelines.
David Rose writes for the Mail on Sunday.