activism climate change politics

How Extinction Rebellion shifted the Overton window

The Overton Window, as you may remember, is a way of understanding which ideas are politically viable and which are considered impossible or radical. If an idea is within the window, it can be discussed and will be taken seriously. If it lies outside of it, a politician will be risking their career and credibility if they support it.

According to its originator, ideas move through a spectrum towards official acceptance. They start out unthinkable, and move to radical, acceptable, sensible, popular, and finally they get adopted as policy.

Robust action on climate change had a moment ten years ago when the Climate Change Act was passed with cross-party support. The failure of the Copenhagen talks took the wind out of its sails, and the financial crisis overwhelmed it with other priorities. A decade of Conservative government has pushed climate change into the margins, with some in the party agitating for the scrapping of climate targets altogether.

That has suddenly changed, in quite spectacular fashion. Last night Parliament passed a motion to declare a climate emergency, one of the three key aims of the Extinction Rebellion movement. It’s a symbolic gesture, sure. And if the Brexit fiasco has taught us anything, it’s that government and Parliament are far from the same thing. Nevertheless, it’s a significant moment. It is Parliament choosing to ‘tell the truth’ about how serious climate change is. Our democratically elected leaders have sent a clear signal that more ambitious and more urgent measures are required.

Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn was happy to take the credit for this yesterday, telling his Twitter followers that “Labour has just forced Parliament to declare a climate emergency”. While it’s true that he brought the declaration to the house, it’s Extinction Rebellion that created the political space for him to do so. Without mass protests over the last couple of weeks, the government would have whipped its MPs against an opposition proposal as a matter of course. Right now, that would make them very unpopular and they chose not to fight it.

It’s also unlikely that Corbyn would have brought the declaration to Parliament at all without recent events sharpening his resolve. There were four activists glued to the front fence of his London home a couple of weeks ago, after all.

The Scottish Parliament offers an even starker ‘before and after’. The Scottish Green Party brought  a vote in March, inviting parliament to recognise climate change as an emergency and wind up support for fossil fuel extraction. Labour and the Scottish National Party wanted nothing to do with it and it failed spectacularly: just 6 votes for and 111 against. Exactly one month later, Nicola Sturgeon was declaring a climate emergency the Scottish Nationalists conference. We all know what happened in between.

Whether these declarations will translate into meaningful action remains to be seen, but there’s no question that it has shifted the Overton window. The combination of mass civil disobedience, Greta Thunberg’s visit and the BBC’s long awaited climate documentary – all different versions of truth telling, it’s worth noting – have made climate change action popular again. And conversely, climate denial is being pushed the other way. The language politicians are using has changed, with a new seriousness and urgency.

Now it’s up to activists to keep an eye on how politicians follow up their words.


    1. Sure, though there are a number of things to say about that. First, you would need a trend line to see whether the debate is changing, rather than a one-off poll. The ONS keeps such data on a quaterly basis, and I’ll be interested to see the next set of results.

      Secondly, Sky are making the mistake of assuming a majority is required, but change doesn’t begin at 51%. Social science tells us that change happens through a committed minority. At 25%, conventional wisdom changes and new norms are created. On that basis there is a significant groundswell on meat eating, flying and driving. (Extinction Rebellion have a stated aim of mobilising 3% of the population, based on studies of mass movements)

      Third, with my journalism student hat on, there’s an editorial line here. From exactly the same dataset, Sky could have reported that almost half of Brits would reduce their meat intake to stop climate change (48%, including those who already have). Fewer than 1 in 5 drivers refuse to change their habits because of climate change, and over a quarter are ready to reduce the amount they fly.

      Once you get past the news angle, that’s actually a good news story.

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