“IT’S BEGINNING TO LOOK apocalyptic…” sings a small group of Christmas carolers, hunched under an awning just outside the New York City Council’s downtown offices during a chilly December downpour. Bundled in bright red scarves with sewn-on patches representing the hourglass logo of international climate action group Extinction Rebellion, the carolers project an energy that’s both festive and dour.
Their subversive performance is part of “The Twelve Days of Crisis,” a series of global protests designed to build awareness about the urgency of climate change. “Extinction Rebellion was the first thing that really spoke to me as far as action that aligned with the current ecological emergency,” says member Christina See, a graduate student in food policy at New York University, who serves as the local chapter’s coordinator of political strategy. The group’s tactics, which have ranged from supergluing themselves to roads, trains, and buildings to attempting to shutdown airports and oil rigs, are extreme and often deliberately disruptive. “It’s not just like, ‘Hey, let’s sign some petitions,’ ” she says. “It’s about taking real action.”
Extinction Rebellion began in April 2018 when a diverse group of about 15 activists met at Gail Bradbrook’s house in the Cotswolds. Bradbrook, a molecular biophysicist who’d been a part of antifracking protests and the Occupy movement, was joined by others accustomed to making splashy statements for the cause. There was her former partner Simon Bramwell, who spent several weeks in a tree in Bristol to fight a proposed bus path back in 2015 (he was unsuccessful), and Roger Hallam, an organic farmer who staged a hunger strike in 2017 to get King’s College London to divest from fossil fuel companies (the school eventually agreed).
Together, the group drafted a series of ambitious goals: They wanted the UK government to acknowledge that climate change had already begun, that it was getting worse, and that we would see unprecedented change within our lifetime. They also asked for the creation of a Citizens’ Assembly on climate change and for legislation to help the country reach net zero—a state in which the emissions produced by humans are balanced by emissions removed from the atmosphere—by 2025. “So many of us who’ve been thinking about the ecological crisis have had this horrible creeping feeling, like nothing was getting done and it was getting worse,” Bradbrook says. “It was a relief to feel the spirit of people willing to be in the streets.”
Their formal—and loud—introduction to the world came in October 2018, weeks after the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a landmark report declaring the world had only 12 years left to make the changes needed to avoid catastrophic warming. Some 1,000 protesters (a total that far exceeded expectations) descended on London’s Parliament Square for what they called a Declaration of Rebellion. Moving to a road outside the Houses of Parliament, they linked arms, forming a massive blockade that stopped traffic for hours. It was a bold unveiling, and it worked: The group received massive media attention, and soon the name Extinction Rebellion was synonymous with a new attitude toward climate change—one that urgently demanded action.
Members capitalized on the early momentum. The following month, as many as 6,000 people—children, the elderly, and artist Gavin Turk among them—blocked five bridges crossing the river Thames, again halting traffic. Eighty-five people were arrested, and the Guardian deemed it one of the largest acts of British civil disobedience in decades. Among the group’s members, many of whom argue that law and order itself must be thrown into chaos before governments will respond, getting arrested is seen as the ultimate badge of honor.
Extinction Rebellion’s founders believe that in order to be effective, they need to mobilize 3.5 percent of the population, the number Harvard political scientist Erica Chenoweth says is needed for civil resistance movements to succeed. At the rate the organization is growing, they’re well on their way. The U.S.-based Climate Emergency Fund, founded by documentary director Rory Kennedy, celebrity philanthropic adviser Trevor Neilson, and philanthropist Aileen Getty, pledged $350,000 to their campaign (the band Radiohead is also a major donor).
Their efforts have been publicly supported by Benedict Cumberbatch and Emma Thompson. Stella McCartney even cast some of the members as models in her fall 2019 campaign. “It’s been quite a thing to go from  people to 72 countries in a year,” Bradbrook says. There are now 485 chapters worldwide, and over 3,000 member arrests have been logged in the UK alone.
The most high-profile action to date took place over 11 days last April when members staged simultaneous protests throughout London, including a “die-in” (in which activists pretended to be dead) at the Natural History Museum and a demonstration in Oxford Circus, where members parked themselves on a hot-pink sailboat in the middle of a street. Major environmental offenders were singled out: “Shell [is] morally bankrupt!” yelled a member as he threw black paint across the oil corporation’s South Bank headquarters, while others blocked entry to the building. Police officers dragged resisting protesters off the streets by their limbs. As Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick remarked to the press, “I’ve been a police officer for 36 years. I have never known an operation, a single operation, in which over 700 people have been arrested.”
While some Londoners saw them as heroes, others were enraged by the traffic jams caused by the protests. But no matter which side of the debate you stood on, the impact was clear: That month—when Extinction Rebellion’s ramp-up coincided with Greta Thunberg’s address to Parliament and the release of Sir Richard Attenborough’s BBC One documentary Climate Change: The Facts—the British media referenced climate change more times than in the previous five years.
Less than a week after Extinction Rebellion’s April actions, Parliament declared an environment and climate emergency. Though the declaration doesn’t require any specific action and is largely symbolic, it was a major indication that Extinction Rebellion had gotten the government’s attention. “They absolutely contributed to the decision of the UK Parliament to declare a climate emergency—no question,” says Genevieve Guenther, PhD, the director of the New York City–based organization End Climate Silence. “Their success is due in part to the beauty of their vision: the clear moral framework, the effectiveness of their protests, their strong messaging, and their theatricality. They are [symptomatic] of this moment when something [fundamental] is shifting.”
As with any rapidly growing movement, Extinction Rebellion has made some missteps. Even the group’s founders recognize that blocking trains in the London Tube during rush hour in October was a major mistake. And Hallam horrified virtually everyone when he referred to the Holocaust as “just another fuckery in human history” during an interview with a German publication. (He later said his statements were taken out of context.) The group, which is largely white and middle-class, also admits it has a diversity problem.
And then there are the experts and writers who believe Extinction Rebellion has overstated some of its more catastrophic predictions. New York magazine climate columnist David Wallace-Wells has quashed its claims that human extinction is looming, at least “on any timescale [that] makes sense for us to think about,” though he acknowledges the group’s political value. Most climate experts agree the goal of becoming net zero by 2025 is unrealistic to the point of near impossibility without a complete dismantling of our current social structures and economy. “It’s not extreme to ask for it; it’s extreme to expect it could happen,” says Paul Hawken, an environmentalist and founder of the climate change mitigation initiative Project Drawdown.
While many in the U.S. are still unfamiliar with Extinction Rebellion, its message is gaining traction. In addition to staging the rebel caroling display last December, New York members have also splashed the Wall Street Charging Bull statue with fake blood and protested in Times Square. In Washington, DC, members staged a hunger strike in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, superglued themselves to an entrance to the Capitol, and shut down a major street.
The question on many members’ minds, however, is, Are they doing enough? Many within the U.S. contingent, which includes a former journalist for the Economist, students, consultants to the UN, firefighters, and bankers, are balancing climate actions with full-time jobs. And for some, even that doesn’t feel adequate. “A lot of us consider every day whether we should even still be in our jobs,” says Ellen McSweeney, a member who works as a therapist in DC. “The science tells us that there are certain places we can’t come back from. So should we be putting down [everything else in our lives] because we’re in this really critical window?”
But whether members are doing enough isn’t the point. They’re doing something. And that, really, is the crux of the good Extinction Rebellion is bringing into the world. It offers a liberating salve to an anxious populace that’s looking around, seeing that the world is in crisis, and not knowing what to do. “People were in a state of despair, longing for something that looked like it could make some [real] change happen,” says fashion designer and founding member Clare Farrell. “Now they finally feel like they’ve been given permission to act.”
EXTINCTION REBELLION BY THE NUMBERS
11.5 MILLION: Americans needed to join Extinction Rebellion to reach what the group deems critical mass: 3.5 percent of the population.
£50,000=$62,200: Donation from hedge funder Sir Christopher Hohn, the largest gift from a single individual.
40% of Americans believe climate change is a cri- sis, according to a 2019 Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation poll.
10,000: Reported number of police deployed during Extinction Rebellion’s April 2019 protests.
This article originally appeared in the April 2020 issue of ELLE.