Tim Crosland: 'Charities lack bravery in tackling the climate emergency'

The Extinction Rebellion co-ordinator tells Andy Hillier why he believes the movement has achieved more in 18 months than three decades of campaigning by established environmental groups

Tim Crosland (Photograph: Andrew Shaylor)
Tim Crosland (Photograph: Andrew Shaylor)

Tim Crosland doesn’t hold back when it comes to expressing his views on the UK charity sector. As a co-ordinator of the Extinction Rebellion movement, he simply feels that established environmental groups and NGOs have lost their way, replacing activism with chasing donations.

In fact, he says bluntly, more has been achieved by XR in the 18 months since its founders first gathered in the living room of a house on the outskirts of Stroud in Gloucestershire than in three decades of campaigning by environmental organisations. The techniques they use, he argues, have become tired and tarnished, and their messages too simplistic.

"If you are a charity or group and you’re saying ‘click here to save the world’, you’re effectively saying that all you have to do is give us a bit of money and we’ll take care of it," he says. "It’s a kind of conspiracy: the organisation gets the funding it needs to pay its overheads, and the donor feels that they are doing something and are part of the solution. But that’s just a lie. Nothing has been improved. In fact, it has been made worse because someone who potentially could be engaged in meaningful action has been lost because they think they have done their bit."

It is a harsh and unpalatable message for hard-working individuals in environmental organisations, many of whom have dedicated their lives to protecting the natural world. But it is also hard to argue with XR’s results. Since the first protest took place in Parliament Square just over a year ago, more than 500 XR groups have been set up in about 70 countries, with uprisings taking place in cities from Paris to Perth. And, combined with the efforts of other protest movements, such as YouthStrike4Climate, governments and corporates are now queueing up to announce their plans to protect the planet.

So far, established environmental causes including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the RSPB and the National Trust have declined to throw their weight behind the movement, citing a range of concerns about its approach. Crosland strongly disagrees with their reasoning. "All those organisations know exactly what’s going on with climate change," he says. "They know we’re in a state of crisis and their basic function is to hold government to account, to hold corporations to account and to communicate that knowledge to the public. But they have all failed disastrously." He points out that some local councils and even parliament have adopted terminology such as "climate emergency" earlier than some environmental campaigning groups.

Crosland believes that if mainstream organisations were to back XR it would be a significant moment for the climate-change movement. "It would lead to a domino effect because they connect to all communities across society," he says. Instead, he says, too many organisations in the charity sector are looking for a safe space for themselves. "They’re still saying ‘we have our charitable status to think about’," he says. "But their approach lacks bravery and courage. Without bravery and courage, we don’t stand a chance of succeeding."

Central to the XR cause is the willingness of its protesters to be arrested, a tactic few organisations in the charity sector are openly willing to endorse. But as a lawyer (see "An unconventional ‘crusty’"), he believes charities have little to fear if their staff are arrested for making a stand on climate change, citing the common law principle that if your neighbour’s house is on fire you can knock down their door to rescue them.

"It’s the defence of necessity," he says. "You do what you have to do in an emergency. It does not mean you won’t get arrested. It does not mean you won’t get prosecuted, and you might be found guilty. But in terms of your charitable constitution, you can say this is what we need to do to discharge our charitable purposes. That is entirely consistent with the law."

Responding to crises

XR came into existence only a year ago, but Crosland says there had been calls by activists in 2016 to do something to respond to the democratic and ecological crises. At that point, however, it was felt it just wasn’t possible.

But when temperatures broke records worldwide in the summer of 2018, the turning point for the movement arrived. "People were starting to say that it felt like it wasn’t OK any more and this was not normal," says Crosland. "We also had Sir David Attenborough, one of the most trusted voices on climate change, talking about the collapse of civilisation. All of these voices came together."

The founders felt this had to be the moment to act. "In fact, it was the last moment to act," Crosland says.

"There was a lot of discussion about whether the theory would work or whether we’d just piss a lot of people off by blocking the streets," says Crosland, admitting there was a degree of uncertainty about how XR would be received. "It hadn’t been done in a long time, because this kind of activism has missed a whole generation."

The movement was right to be uncertain. Reaction was mixed at first, with the public, press and politicians unsure of what to make of this new generation of non-violent protesters preaching peace and love for the planet, but within weeks its simple clear message of the need to act now or face ever-rising temperatures was resonating with the public, politicians and the mainstream media.

Part of the attraction of the protests has been how nice it is to be able to walk around parts of the city normally dominated by vehicles, says Crosland. "One of the distinctive features of XR is that this can’t just be disruption. It has got be deeper. You have to connect people emotionally and show them the different possibilities for co-existence. People have been able to go on to Waterloo Bridge without the traffic."

The movement has also drawn on the lessons learned from successful protest movements of the past, including the suffragettes and civil rights activists in the US. This includes putting civil disobedience at the centre of everything it does.

"All the research shows that non-violent civil disobedience is fundamental to social change," says Crosland. "That might not apply to every country, because political situations are different, but operating in the UK you are much more likely to be successful if you commit non-violent civil disobedience." (Photograph: Getty Images)

XR has been eager to lay the blame for the climate crisis on the systems in which we all operate, rather than on individuals. "We see individuals – whether they are police officers, staff working for fossil-fuel companies or politicians – as trapped in the system," says Crosland. "This is why we find space to be compassionate and respectful towards them.

"This creates dilemmas. You can see in the police officers’ faces that they don’t normally arrest people like this. They don’t normally arrest people who are just talking openly and honestly from the heart."

But some of the movement’s acts of rebellion have drawn criticism. In particular, the decision of a handful of protesters to target commuter trains led to a widespread backlash from the public and the police.

Protesters first targeted London’s Docklands Light Railway network as part of its protests in April. Then, Crosland says, the target was the financial district of Canary Wharf, rather than public transport users: "For many, Phil Kingston, the 83-year-old on top of the DLR, taking peaceful but defiant action for his grandchildren and for all people, was one of the most memorable images of the rebellion."

But he admits the more recent Tube action in October, which closed down three stations in less well-off parts of east London, was "a mistake, both tactically and strategically".

The police don't normally arrest people who are just talking openly and honestly from the heart

Tim Crosland

"Just before it took place, the police, who were conducting an aggressive operation against us, had committed an extraordinary violation of basic political rights by claiming to ban all XR protests from anywhere in London. Democrats in the UK and around the world were outraged.

"In that context, and at that point in the rebellion, the Tube action made no sense. The vast majority of the movement was against it, but it went ahead anyway. We’ll learn from this and come back stronger."

But he says that, although the disruption was an error, it was a mistake that came from the "best of motives".

The movement’s approach to arrest has been called out as one aspect of broader criticisms XR has faced for being too white and middle class. Some critics argue that this way of raising awareness marginalises those less able to get involved, particularly black and minority ethnic protesters or people with disabilities.

Others have noted the movement’s failure to engage with groups such as Black Lives Matter UK, which has previously blockaded London Airport to protest at the disproportionate impact of climate change on people of colour. Crosland acknowledges the criticism and says XR is making strides to become more inclusive. "The challenge we face is a global one," he says. "If we’re not connecting to communities on the front line, we’re not going to succeed, which is why we have the concept of the Movement of Movements, whereby we consciously look at how we build relationships with other groups."

At last month’s protests in London it also set up Global Justice Rebellion, a "safe" protest site where people with disabilities and from different communities could come together to support the movement without the fear of being arrested. "People tend to forget that this was just 15 people in a house in Stroud a year ago," says Crosland. "People imagine that we know everything all at once. But I think we’re learning really fast."

A key XR demand is that government must act now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025. This would require countries to significantly reduce emissions by, for example, improving the energy performance of buildings and dramatically cutting pollution from transport and industry.

In May, the UK government committed to achieving net zero by 2050, but XR’s 2025 target has been rejected, even ridiculed, by some climate experts as unachievable. Crosland concedes there has been tension within XR about the timeframe, but it has been kept to expose the "inadequacy" of the 2050 target. "This is about being honest and saying that’s what the science is telling us," he says. "The 2050 target is nowhere near good enough."

But he admits he personally has an issue with the 2025 target. "One of the nice things about XR is that it’s a hive mind and we don’t all have to stick to the script," he reflects. "There’s a view, which I share, that there’s a problem with the 2025 target, in particular that it does not talk about equity and it doesn’t link to what the global net-zero goal must be. It doesn’t link to the financial support there needs to be in historically low-emitting countries. But that doesn’t mean it’s not an important way to get people to understand the science."

At a time when many third sector organisations have struggled to attract new donors, XR has also excelled at raising money: its crowdfunding campaigns during the recent uprisings raised more than £1.4m in just over a week to support its protests and cover the legal costs of those arrested. Donations have come from a range of sources, including the public, businesses and high-net-worth individuals. "Radiohead have donated some profits from their recent record," says Crosland. "Michael Stipe of REM has said he’ll donate the profits from his first solo single to XR. We’re plugging into different sources."

But XR refuses to accept money from funders that want to attach lots of strings to their donations. Nor does it want to become part of the mainstream. "There have been funders who have said ‘turn yourselves into good little boys and girls and a nice little charity, and we have lots of money for you’," Crosland says. "We’re completely resistant. We know that’s the end. It has happened to others that have gone before us."

Tim Crosland: an unconventional 'crusty'

At the height of the Extinction Rebellion demonstrations in October, Prime Minister Boris Johnson branded protesters a bunch of "uncooperative crusties" who should stop blocking London’s streets with their "heaving, hemp-smelling bivouacs".

Tim Crosland (above, photograph from Getty Images) is, however, far removed from your stereotypical hardcore environmental activist. He studied Latin and Greek at Pembroke College in Oxford in the late 1980s and later completed a Master’s in international human rights and environmental law at Utrecht University. He went on to work as a lawyer, becoming head of cyber, prevention and information law at the National Crime Agency in 2013.

It was a work trip to Nigeria that reignited his desire to work in environmental law. "I was talking to the department of security about the growing disappearance of Lake Chad, one of the largest bodies of fresh water in west Africa. It was the source of fresh water for many people in some of the poorest countries in the world. As a result, people had been displaced to other parts of Nigeria and into the arms of the [Islamic terrorist organisation] Boko Horam."

It also dawned on him that he’d been sent out by the UK government to do the "neo-colonial thing" of telling Nigeria how it should organise its affairs while the UK was pumping out harmful gases that were driving international instability. "This seemed all the wrong way round," says Crosland.

In 2015, he quit his job at the crime agency and went on to found Plan B, a not-for-profit legal practice that specialises in taking action on climate issues. It is currently taking the government to court over its planned expansion of Heathrow Airport.

For Crosland one of the remarkable aspects of XR is the number of people who, like him, have turned their backs on conventional careers. "What’s amazing is this unity between hardcore activists and people who are giving up their jobs in the City and in government," he says.

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