The Activist: Extinction Rebellion

Andrew Medhurst, a member of Extinction Rebellion (XR), outlines the group’s three demands of policymakers and argues the private sector should be doing more to respond to the climate crisis.

4 minute read

Andrew Medhurst
Andrew Medhurst, leader of Extinction Rebellion’s UK National Finance Working Group

What would be your utopia?

I’d like an economic system that does not damage the planet, with everybody else sharing the cost. That’s not a market system, right? In a proper system, the pollution caused – the damage made in order to make a profit – should be paid for by whoever causes it, not by everybody else.

What are your three demands of government?

First, we want government to tell the truth. We think that when people understand the emergency we are in, they will be pushing for – and supportive of – some sort of emergency mobilisation.

Our second demand is: Act now. Acting now is about the demand to be net zero by 2025. 2050 [the government’s target date for a carbon-neutral energy mix] sounds like something you can put off for another ten years, and that’s not what the scientists or officials at the United Nations are saying.

The final demand is a call for a citizens’ assembly in the UK. If we have failed to tackle the climate emergency so far, it’s in some sense because democracy has structural problems. A citizens’ assembly will be supported by experts, receive representations from other citizens and come up with recommendations.

Politicians have had the power to make these changes, but they have not done anything

Politicians have had the power to make these changes, but they have not done anything. We do this because everything else has been tried and failed. The United States devoted one per cent of its national wealth to fighting Hitler in 1939. By 1943, it was devoting 43 per cent. That kind of mobilisation is necessary for economies around the world now.

Has Extinction Rebellion engaged with business?

In April, I was involved in an attempt to get business support for XR. It manifested itself in a letter to The Times, written by several business leaders, which said: “Contrary to belief, there is business support for Extinction Rebellion.” The discussions continued, which resulted in the launch, in September 2019, of Business Declares a Climate Emergency, an initiative by business people to encourage companies to declare a climate emergency. It tries to complement what XR is trying to do with government.

Which kinds of businesses are doing the right thing, in your view?

Part of being a B-corporation is that you change your articles of association to say profit isn’t the only motive, that your ecological footprint and doing good for all stakeholders are important too.

It should be more expensive to get your energy from a fossil-fuel burning energy company

Energy provider Ecotricity is a B-corp, and the company has declared a climate emergency. It has signed up to net-zero targets that are consistent with XR’s demands. The thing that really pains me is that when I converted to Ecotricity, it cost me an extra 15 or 20 per cent over the cheapest provider. It should be more expensive to get your energy from a fossil-fuel burning energy company than Ecotricity.

How do you react when asset managers and others in the financial industry say they want to play a role in tackling climate change?

There’s talk-the-talk and there’s walk-the-walk. I’m very happy to hear positive words of wisdom from the business and financial communities, it just feels like we need to force everyone to do it. That’s why we focus our demands on government.

But don’t investors have a role to play?

Compared to citizens, businesses have a bigger voice that governments are more inclined to listen to; that’s a way in which business can contribute.

The Business Roundtable has just said fiduciary duty to shareholders is outdated

There are signs of progress. The Business Roundtable has just said fiduciary duty to shareholders is outdated. The Financial Times has said it is “time for a reset” of free-enterprise capitalism. Robert Eccles, a visiting professor at the Saïd Business School in Oxford, says all companies should publish a statement of purpose. Wouldn’t it be great if every time a business made a decision it thought about the welfare of our grandchildren rather than its quarterly earnings?

Faced with engaging with companies or divesting their stakes, where should asset managers draw the line?

Just because you divest, it doesn’t mean that company doesn’t continue to get financed by others. If everybody divested, that would be interesting. Equally, I know of sustainability investment professionals who are still trying to convince companies like Exxon-Mobil to put something in their annual reports about climate change.

Fossil-fuel companies have to stop being fossil-fuel companies

It doesn’t feel like they are acting quickly enough. Fossil-fuel companies have to stop being fossil-fuel companies, but whether that’s more likely to happen through divestment or engagement, I’m not 100 per cent sure.

Some people argue the highest emitters should bear the burden of dealing with climate change. Shouldn’t China be doing more?

I often hear: “There are 7.5 billion people on the planet, it’s going to be 10 billion by 2050, so India and China are the problem; go and protest outside their embassies.”

The top ten per cent of the richest individuals on the planet are responsible for 50 per cent of the world’s emissions

The statistic I give to counter that is the top ten per cent of the richest individuals on the planet are responsible for 50 per cent of the world’s emissions. If they were to reduce their carbon footprint to the EU average – which is hardly going back to the Stone Age – that is a 30 per cent cut in global emissions within a year. So, suddenly, a 50 per cent cut in global emissions in 12 years starts to look very achievable.

How do you see the role of incentives?

I think behaviours can be changed quite quickly by using economic incentives. If you’re not harming the environment, you should be rewarded for that. At this moment in time, you might sleep better at night, but I’m not sure you’re being rewarded.

Is there an area of technology you are particularly enthusiastic about?

XR has suffered by not having a good enough view of what the future looks like, in articulating what that car-free city, that more collaborative, community-based city, might look like.

How do we live lives that are just as fulfilled, but with less?

I’d like to think I’ve bought my last car. My next driving experience after that might be sharing a car. Most cars sit in driveways for most of the week, so you can imagine a sharing economy where you no longer have the same footprint of individual consumption. For me, technologies are about: “How do we live lives that are just as fulfilled, but with less?”

If you had one thing on your wish list for 2020, what would it be?

I’d love to see a million people on our mailing list sometime in 2020. The social science says we need 3.5 per cent of the population – two to three million people in the UK – to be active with XR before the government will turn around and accede to our demands.

Are you concerned it is already too late to tackle the crisis?

There are people who say it’s already too late, but when you’re driving towards a wall, the excuse that it’s too difficult to stop in time isn’t an excuse for not braking (and hard) – we’re actually accelerating! It may be too late, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to reduce harm and save as much as we can. We owe that, at least, to our children and grandchildren

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