I woke up today to reports that climate activists have disrupted public transport in my home city:




This is a repeat of an incident that occurred earlier this year. I have been trying to reason about the motivation of these activists and I have done some google searches to try and find the what they say is the reason behind this. But my search have not come up with any reasons as to why they are taking this action.

I can understand blocking the roads and airports as to tackle climate change we do need to do something about these methods of transport, but I believe that the general consensus is that public transport is the solution to many climate change problems.

Note: By understand I do not mean agree with

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    Comments deleted. If you want to answer, post an answer. This is not a place to debate climate activism.
    – Philipp
    Commented Oct 18, 2019 at 12:55

8 Answers 8


The stated intention on their website is

to bring economic disruption to the capital as part of the ongoing campaign to convince the Government to take meaningful action on the Climate and Ecological Emergency.

Time will tell what the Government takes meaningful action on.

The Guardian article to which Denis linked says that "the results of an internal poll of XR members, shared with the Guardian, showed 72% opposed action on London’s underground network under any circumstances."

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    Your first paragraph is the true answer. Extinction Rebellion's goal isn't to fight climate change themselves, but to force the government to fight climate change through a campaign of sustained civil disobedience. They believe that the government could take much more effective action against climate change than the general population.
    – F1Krazy
    Commented Oct 17, 2019 at 9:47

Too much hyperbole in reporting might distort the perception of what happened. That was not an "attack" as in the usual sense of "terrorism" but a badly coordinated small and temporary disruption of transport to grab the public attention. Even internally other members of Extinction Rebellion (XR) were not much agreeing on this action.

Extinction Rebellion activists have disrupted London’s public transport network during rush hour, in an action that is likely to polarise opinion on the environmental movement’s tactics.

The group said: “The actions are intended to bring further economic disruption to the capital as part of the ongoing campaign to convince the government to take meaningful action on the climate and ecological emergency.

The results of an internal poll of XR members, shared with the Guardian, showed 72% opposed action on London’s underground network under any circumstances.

–– Guardian

And as targeting one of the most environment-friendly modes of transport seems indeed illogical:

  1. 'the target' wasn't the transport but the public mind and traffic in general; the goal is not bringing down a tube line, but for the protesters 'to get arrested in front of the public'

  2. making such a noise is difficult for them, as the announced 'wave of civil disobedience' is already banned in the whole city of London. That means that more obvious choices and locations are harder to get to

In case that all sounds strange, don't look too far for rational explanations.

Social change is basically an emotional process. It’s not a cognitive process.
–– ‘We’re facing a societal collapse’: Extinction Rebellion’s Roger Hallam speaks to ACT UP’s Peter Staley about disrupting the world in order to save it

From their FAQ:

How can you justify the inconvenience and loss caused to businesses and individuals as a result of your actions? What if someone loses their job because they are late for work?

We wish it wasn’t necessary and it’s not something we do lightly. Extinction Rebellion is made up of people who also have jobs and responsibilities and we do not want anyone to be inconvenienced or worse as a result of our actions.

But the reality is we will all suffer because of government inaction on climate collapse and biodiversity loss. They are failing us and it’s putting all our lives, jobs and homes at risk.

Credible commentators say that the economy will collapse on a heating planet, that society could collapse. Sir David Attenborough is on record speaking of this possibility.

We would encourage anyone who feels upset or angry by our actions to find out more about the severity of the ecological and climate crisis.

Your campaign seems to focus on mass disruption. Are you not scared about what damage you might do to people’s lives?

Before starting Extinction Rebellion the network Rising Up! partially shut down Heathrow Airport on two occasions and carried out many road blocks to test how to safely do these actions. We are always concerned about causing inconvenience to people and it doesn’t feel good when you learn someone missed an important event like a funeral or a hospital appointment. We are doing it as we believe we have to look at the bigger picture of how many people are dying today and how dire our trajectory is.

In the face of this we accept that we inevitably cause inconvenience to people. We sincerely apologise to them. We are firmly and collectively of the view that, given the dismal failure of world leaders to date, disruption is now necessary to get anything like commensurate change. If there was a better, less disruptive way of doing this we would do that instead! Many of us have faced arrest, fines, convictions for our actions; some of us have been on hunger strike and gone to jail. So we are willing to take the consequences of our actions and to make personal sacrifices in order to do them. Business as usual is simply no longer a viable option.

Which is summarised in a current analysis as:

The leaders of Extinction Rebellion insist on bringing about systemic change in the name of stopping climate change by encouraging mass lawbreaking, causing large scale disruption, and inflicting significant economic damage.

–– Tom Wilson & Richard Walton: "Extremism Rebellion. A review of ideology and tactics", Policy Exchange 2019. (PDF)

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    But... you can't ban civil disobedience. Like, it's right in the name that the people are going to disobey and disregard laws in the name of the cause. (rather, "banning" it means nothing)
    – Delioth
    Commented Oct 17, 2019 at 18:04
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    Squeaky wheel gets the grease +1. OP is reading way too far into this (not that I even did). Unless they're actually on to something: that the people who take PT are an untapped resource and, by large, likely to be amicable to their cause, even though they're the ones suffering the delay.
    – Mazura
    Commented Oct 17, 2019 at 21:12
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    @Delioth A ban just makes the governments position clear that it won't consider such activities a lawful protest but an illegal act of public disorder and that they will likely try to arrest people. Commented Oct 17, 2019 at 21:48
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    @MarkAmery They usually cooperate with police, ask for permission to rebel. And it is quite senseless to get arrested before people notice. They want at least a few seconds of limelight… Commented Oct 18, 2019 at 13:40
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    @MarkAmery You are aware that the purpose of any protest or strike is basically to raise awareness, correct? Causing actual disruption forces the 90% of people who turn a blind eye to politics to actually confront the fact that the problem exists. Getting arrested can raise awareness, but only in some cases. What would a protester achieve by getting arrested in the middle of nowhere? Commented Oct 18, 2019 at 17:40

Unless we rule out usual reason / excuse in any big organisation, that with neither leadership knowledge nor approval, someone overeager made something not specially thought of, I could also think about an alternative explanations. As one of the founders openly stated in his blog:

Extinction Rebellion isn’t about the Climate

It's not a clickbait, as he openly states that whole idea of fixing climate is effectively a lost cause:

Indeed, we won’t fix it. Weather patterns will become increasingly unstable and unpredictable, and the effects it will soon have on how humans around the world grow food will be devastating, likely causing harvests to fail across entire continents and food prices to sky-rocket. Millions have already suffered due to the amplified instability. We’re facing imminent societal collapse (whatever that means), both around the world and in the UK. All of our lives are soon going to radically change.

Climate change is according to him a symptom of underlying pathologies:

And I’m here to say that XR isn’t about the climate. You see, the climate’s breakdown is a symptom of a toxic system of that has infected the ways we relate to each other as humans and to all life.

He express multiple things that he actually wants to combat, that he even bolded them in his original text: "white-supremacy", "patriarchy", "Eurocentrism" and "class hierarchy".

Worse, it’s a racist and sexist form of denialism, that takes away from the necessary focus of the need for all of us to de-colonise our selves.

What's the point of disorganising mass transit if one is fighting climate change? None. What's the point to do it if someone is motivated by atonement for sins (self hate?) of Western civilisation and wants to remodel (destroy?) it? Then it starts make much more sense.

As an extra option, I can wonder whether a logic is the right term here. One highly eccentric scholar, Dr Edward Dutton tried to analyse their behaviour, through experience of multiple religious or social movements. The problem is the following - if your neighbours start to claim that alcohol should be drank at most in small quantities, then your only possibility to increase your social standing in their eyes is to declare that no amount of alcohol is allowed. Even though your decision may in long make the movement too radical to achieve much, it's highly rational decision from your individual perspective. As in contemporary highly secular times, conventional religions (or usual apocalyptic cults) loose their allure, then something else may take over this niche.

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    Unless we rule out usual reason / excuse in any big organisation, that someone many levels below made something not specially thought of — there is no (hierarchical) organisation.
    – gerrit
    Commented Oct 17, 2019 at 16:21
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    I agree - if it was about the climate, they'd be trying to bring Beijing or Delhi to a standstil, but they're not, and barely give recognition to those countries massively increased use of climate emissions (or of plastic pollution). They just want their 15 minutes and some "smash the system" attention. This is why the recent kids climate protest had banners that read "get the tories out" and "socialist worker". Climate is just an excuse.
    – gbjbaanb
    Commented Oct 19, 2019 at 14:17
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    @divibisan Well, to be honest I'm not exactly sure how serious AGW is supposed to be averted through even Europe going carbon neutral, if in the same time third world is having an industrial boom and in absolute terms is increasing its emission a few times more what Europe is reducing. Especially that part of Europe reduction is achieved by outsourcing big chunk of dirty production to China.
    – Shadow1024
    Commented Oct 19, 2019 at 17:20
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    @divibisan I suppose XR as a "global movement" could do something, the protesters in London could glue themselves to the Chinese and Indian embassies, and Emma Thompson could fly to Beijing instead of London. i think its closer to LA and thus would save a bit of carbon emissions! Every little bit helps after all ;-)
    – gbjbaanb
    Commented Oct 19, 2019 at 19:32
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    And how does he explain, that back in pre-ww2 times when there was real "white-supremacy", "patriarchy", "Eurocentrism" and "class hierarchy" (things that all almost disapeared since), the environment was doing fine ?? Basically it's "A disappears while B appears but I don't like B so let's kill the last remainings symptoms of A to fix B". It makes absolutely no sense logically.
    – Bregalad
    Commented Oct 20, 2019 at 10:25

The Guardian's article likely captures the rationale (emphasis mine):

Ruth Jarman, who sat next to Kingston, said they had targeted the DLR because it’s destination was London’s financial district. “It’s heading for the City, which is the God of our time,” she said.

“All the scientific reports coming out now about what we should do about the climate breakdown, about the ecological breakdown, we need total transformation of the economy. At the moment we serve economic growth. Humanity, the planet is crucifying itself to economic growth. It cannot go on.”

  • Thank you for pointing to that article. That's the only place I have seen those comments. Also the Guardian's "As the climate crisis escalates…" box at the bottom is an interesting read - I wasn't aware of this.
    – Robert3452
    Commented Oct 17, 2019 at 7:43
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    Interesting that "the results of an internal poll of XR members, shared with the Guardian, showed 72% opposed action on London’s underground network under any circumstances." This particular disruption seems ill-judged - bad optics and counterproductive.
    – Lag
    Commented Oct 17, 2019 at 9:15
  • @Robert3452 That "As the..." is (while probably true) mainly a marketing push for subscriptions. They similarly feature long footers on other articles tailored to the particular article, e.g. "As intolerance grows ..." . The climate one seems to be quite prevalent on most of their articles at the moment, but only because it's topical. I never saw it before a few weeks ago.
    – Mohirl
    Commented Oct 17, 2019 at 15:13
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    @Lag "counterproductive" - citation needed. For comparison, civil rights protests in the US were disliked by the majority of the population, yet counties that experienced protests have less racial resentment. doi.org/10.1111/ajps.12384
    – BurnsBA
    Commented Oct 17, 2019 at 15:53
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    @BurnsBA I wrote it seems counterproductive - unsure why a citation is needed for that, I am the source. Most XR members were against action on the Underground, much of the public at the station seemed against that disruption, the Mayor of London who the previous day voiced broad support and facilitated protest for XR stated his opposition to that disruption, the comments I've read seem largely very critical. The stated intention is to persuade government to meet XR's demands - if anything I would think this behaviour would persuade government against XR, hence "counterproductive".
    – Lag
    Commented Oct 17, 2019 at 17:02

Because they want exactly what the OP (and myself, among others) are giving them:

Publicity and pressure.

This kind of high profile actions attracts the attention of the media and the public, making the organization and its goals more known.

As such, the election of the action/target is not directly related to the final goals of the organization but to other factors like ease of execution, risk (both personal and legal) of the action, public that will be reached by it, impact in the media. The final goal may have some weight, but it is not decisive; in relation with these events it could have decided to act in a financial district as representative of the economical elite that is opposing actions against climate change (for example).

Another factor would be the effects of the action on the government, by causing so much trouble that it is forced to act; but probably at this point Extinction Rebellion are too weak to aspire to that1. To put an example of that, Hong Kong protesters are targetting also public transport in some of their actions asking for democracy. Of course there is not much direct relationship between public transports and democracy, but the resulting chaos causes lots of publicity and can also cause people to be angry towards the government, weakening it.

1If forcing the government by public disobedience you would expect more than an one-off event; you would expect a continued campaign.

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    The public can also get angry with the protesters, weakening their cause. You're basically saying that any publicity is good publicity, which may not be true. (But it seems true enough for obscure causes/products etc. gsb.stanford.edu/insights/when-bad-publicity-good) Commented Oct 18, 2019 at 6:21
  • Yes, as I see it bad publicity is worse than good publicity, but better than no publicity at all. While some people may have a negative reaction to you due to your actions, you also become known to likely minded people.
    – SJuan76
    Commented Oct 18, 2019 at 7:06

The goal of most such activists is not to solve the actual problem (they can't), but to draw attention to the problem so that the government / corporations / etc. start solving it.

Actions with (seemingly) positive effect on the climate actually serve the same purpose. Blocking the airports will have minimal effect on the climate unless you block most of the country's airports for a substantial part of the year. If you block a couple of airports for a week, most of the people who missed their flight and needed to fly anyway won't change their mind, they will hop on a plane when the protest is over, or get to the airport which isn't blocked.

On the other hand, seeing blocked airports on TV makes a substantial amount of people think about this and at least become aware that air traffic has a measurable impact on the climate. And if they see a blocked subway, they are also likely to read about the protests or at least become aware of the slogans they see on the posters.


Even when people agree on the problem, differing opinions lead people to support different solutions to the problem.

Every movement has its fundamentalists, but not everyone of that movement is a fundamentalist. Some people take a more compromising stance than others.

Your question is implying that the anti-public-transport climate activists are shooting themselves in the foot. Regardless of whether that's correct, you could find similar "shooting in the foot" arguments in pretty much every movement or philosophy, which is usually biased towards things the observer personally disagree with.

Note that the examples I use here are purely demonstrative and while I try to avoid bias, I'm not perfect either. I'm not labeling anything as good or bad, I'm merely pointing out its existence.

  • You have vegetarians who don't eat meat in order to avoid animal suffering, but some anti-animal-suffering activists argue that farm animals used (for purposes other than eating) are also a form of animal suffering, e.g. having cows/horses pull a plough. Arguably, this can be seen as the same "shooting in the foot" principle as the one you're highlighting, as it hinders the growing of plant-based food (which would be needed to replace meat in an omnivoruous diet).

  • Similarly, you have anti-discrimination activists who advocate equality; but some activists have argued solutions that are tantamount to discriminating the other way, in an attempt to counterbalance the system. This again arguably can be interpreted to shoot the original intention in the foot by perpetuating discrimination, but simply redirecting it at other people.

  • I don't think I need to elaborate on religious examples here but the principle is the same there too, not everyone draws their line the same way. Some people read their scriptures more literally than others, which is exactly why different movements can exist within the same encompassing religion.

Regardless of me agreeing or disagreeing with any of these stances (believe me when I say I've picked both things I agree and disagree with), it's unavoidable that some people take an above average hardline stance, whereas others take a below average "softline" stance (by semantical definition of what an average is). I'll use your climate activists as an example. The general idea can be summed up as (oversimplified):

We should stop manmade climate change. Emissions from transportation are one big example of something that causes manmade climate change.

But different humans find different solution to the problem. There are myriad approaches possible, but I'll specifically focus on a few that are relevant to your question:

  • We should lower car usage as this will lower emissions. Public transport emits notably less pollution (per person) than personal vehicles.
  • We should ban all motor vehicles, as this will lower emissions.
  • We should get the government to take action against climate change, as this will lower emissions. We should protest and use civil disobedience to get the government's attention.

Three different opinions, all intended to lower emissions, all with sound reasoning. But three wildly different approaches which conflict with each other (e.g. you can't shift people towards public transport and oppose public transport at the same time)

Your stance is the first one. The people who disrupted public transport fall into either the second or third stance (or any other stances I may have omitted).

I'm not interested in picking who's wrong and who's right, I'm just pointing out that even when people agree on the problem, they might still back different solutions to that problem.


Climate activists want to raise awareness of climate issues.

The target of climate activists is not necessarily the form of transport being blocked. Rather, they try to draw attention so unaware individuals inform themselves. Blocking roads makes drivers pay attention, and blocking airports makes plane travelers do the same. Since drivers’ and plane travelers’ plans are disrupted, they are bound to ask themselves what the action is about. But what about the millions of people who limit themselves to other forms of public transport? Blocking roads and airports has little to no effect on them. But blocking subways definitely will make such people pay attention.

Your post illustrates very well the misunderstanding that such actions may cause, however, so climate activists might want to reevaluate.

  • Blocking roads may get attention, but a citation is needed to support the claim that the attention received 'by the uninformed' will have anything to do with what the activists are protesting.
    – Dunk
    Commented Oct 19, 2019 at 2:48
  • Under this explanation, the activists are assuming that there are unaware people. Given that the issue is given all of the publicity that could be of any use, and at least in the major media the coverage is favorable to the view that anthropogenic climate change is a clear and present danger, everyone is either aware and agrees, or is aware and disagrees, or is uninformed by choice. So not much is accomplished.
    – EvilSnack
    Commented Oct 20, 2019 at 2:19

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