THERE’S a young man embarking on a career as a weather forecaster. An anthropologist whose father set up the charity Shelter. A public relations professional. A student who’s the daughter of a police officer. And a middle class Edinburgh woman, brought up in the city’s affluent Marchmont area.

They may seem an unlikely bunch of rebels, but these five people, sitting around a table in a cafe in Edinburgh, are part of a movement, now many thousands strong across the UK, and they are all willing to break the law and go to prison for their beliefs.

What they care about is climate change and the ‘direct existential threat’ it poses to humankind. Their organisation is called Extinction Rebellion and already it’s carried out the biggest act of civil disobedience that’s been seen in the UK for decades when 6000 protestors brought London to a standstill in November by blocking city bridges. Just over a week ago, they occupied the Scottish Parliament. They are at least 1000 strong in Scotland, with around 20,000 supporters across the UK.

Modelled on the Suffragettes, the American civil rights movement, Occupy, and Mahatma Ghandi’s campaign for Indian independence, ‘non-violent direct action’ and civil disobedience are at the heart of their fight for a ‘full scale rebellion’. So far around 150 members have been arrested - the movement calls them ‘conscientious protectors’.

Protestors are prepared to padlock themselves to railings, shut down oil refineries, halt traffic with sit-down protests, or even, in exceptional circumstances, chuck a rock through a window if the window belongs to a corporation that’s seen to be profiting from or perpetuating climate change. Property is fair game, but people are off limits. Extinction Rebellion, or XR as members call it, insists it will not physically harm or harass anyone.

They are now stepping up their actions with Rebellion Day this April which will see mass civil disobedience across the country. There will be an action in Glasgow in February - it will be focussed on the River Clyde - highlighting the risks of flooding caused by climate change to cities. There will be school strikes across the country in places like Fort William, Glasgow, and Edinburgh, with pupils protesting outside schools or at locations like Holyrood or the City Chambers. They also plan to disrupt Fashion Week in mid-February by ‘swarming’ - or sending protestors out on the streets to disrupt shows. Fashion is seen as one of the most polluting industries.

The public will be hearing a lot about XR over the coming months, and the organisation will fall under increased scrutiny. So, who are its members? Why did they join? And what are their plans?


BLACK’S view of the the world changed forever when she landed at the airport on the Norwegian island of Svalbard in the Arctic circle, on a trip with her marine biologist brother. There was no ice.

‘Ten years ago there would’ve been ice up to the airport,’ she says, ‘but for a 20 minute drive from the airport there was no ice.’

Following her trip, Black, who works as a publicist, became increasingly worried about climate change - she admits to even crying about the issue.

She doesn’t come from a radical family - her dad is a GP, her mum a teacher, and they’re both religious. However, she says, her parents’ Christianity meant they cared about climate change. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and 100 of the UK’s leading academics, have all publicly backed XR.

Black went to the inaugural XR meeting in Edinburgh in November. Like many, she found the organisation on social media, and was drawn to its boldness.

‘It felt like real action I could get involved in. For the last three years I’ve been getting upset about climate change but not actually doing anything as I felt it was such a huge thing that I couldn’t do anything,’ she says. ‘One of the reasons I’m comfortable being a part of this is because it’s non-violent.’

Like many in XR it’s not just climate change she’s fighting, but a system seen as allowing climate change to happen. So it’s the political and economic status quo that’s in her sights. ‘Climate change is the symptom of a broken system and as individuals we’re part of that system,’ she says.

Black helped organise the occupation of the Scottish parliament on January 25. Many thought the action was just about calling on Holyrood to introduce tougher climate targets - but it wasn’t. It was also about something more sophisticated. XR wants the Scottish government to establish a Citizens’ Assembly on climate change.

Citizens’ Assemblies are being increasingly discussed around the world as a means to solve seemingly intractable problems. It’s been suggested for Brexit, and Ireland famously used a Citizens’ Assembly to help resolve the national debate on abortion by empanelling 99 members of the public - randomly chosen like a jury. The Irish Citizens’ Assembly heard evidence in public over 18 months from every side of the debate. The process was hailed for allowing facts to dominate, not opinion. Eventually, the assembly recommended that abortion be legalised and a subsequent public referendum voted the same way.

Similarly, XR wants Holyrood to convene a Citizens’ Assembly on how to cut carbon emissions to zero by 2025. Such boldness of ambition accounts for its growing appeal.

Climate change is an issue for the people to deal with, Black says. ‘It’s not just for politicians who don’t listen to us. We need to be able to make the decisions,’ she adds.


KENRICK was working as an anthropologist in Africa when he started to see the seasons ‘go haywire’.

‘It was obvious,’ he says, ‘that climate change was real and happening right now.’ He also saw the forest communities in Kenya that he worked with taking action into their own hands to protect themselves. They were being thrown off their land by companies looking to exploit natural resources but they blocked roads and staged sit-down protests.

Even when pushed to the extreme, they didn’t resort to violence against people, only property. After shots were fired, and they thought one of their own were killed, protesters burned down a guard post. ‘To me that’s not violent,’ says Kenrick. ‘They let all the guards go - they let them leave, with their guns. It was their way of saying you can’t f**king do this any more, but they didn’t harm a single person.’

That’s pretty much the template Kenrick sees for XR. ‘It’s the willingness to put your body on the line to say this needs to change,’ he says, citing the Suffragettes. ‘We are at that place in terms of climate change right now - we can see that if we don’t act we’ll be past the point of no return.’

Kenrick doesn’t like the word ‘radical’ - he questions why a society would see a group of people going to their own parliament to demand action on climate change as a radical act - but radicalism is in his blood. His father was the Church of Scotland minister, Bruce Kenrick, who founded the housing charity Shelter.

‘XR isn’t radical - it’s just straight-forward common-sense. We’ve just 12 years to turn this around,’ he says. In October, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned there was only 12 years left for global warming to be kept to a maximum of 1.5C, beyond which even half a degree will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people.

There’s a sense of the history-changing idealism of the anti-slavery movement or the gay rights movement about XR. At the time, no-one believed that abolitionists would succeed, or gay rights become mainstream.

‘When you look back on history,’ says Kendrick, ‘change always looks inevitable, but when you look forward it looks impossible. People say we can’t do anything about climate change - well if we don’t then we’re over.’

Kenrick is aware that members of XR could suffer. Civil disobedience has seen protestors hurt or even killed in the past. ‘If you need to put your body on the line you do,’ he says.

When it comes to direct action, ‘it’s got to be strategic,’ he says, ‘you’ve got to be intelligent. You’d never throw a rock through a window unless it was incredibly strategic and well thought through. And you always have to take responsibility for your actions - that’s the key thing and that’s where you go to prison. You can often do something and get away with it, but the point of this is to say ‘no, I am doing this as it really matters’.’


SCHONVELD has no problem describing herself as a ‘middle class hippie’. She was raised in the well-heeled Marchmont part of Edinburgh, and her parents were teachers and members of the Communist Party.

She and Kenrick married in 1991 and have three sons. One came with them to occupy bridges in London, and their teenage son has been on XR’s non-violent direct action training courses.

Schonveld was running arts programmes for people with mental health problems when she became increasingly concerned about the environment. Then later she spotted XR on social media. The organisation was started by a handful of activists in London who simply used Facebook and Youtube to encourage ordinary people to take individual or group action to highlight the threat of climate change - it’s essentially a leaderless movement.

‘When I saw it on Youtube,’ says Schonveld, ‘I thought, ‘thank god for that’. I’d been puzzled why people weren’t out on the streets.’

In terms of the direct action XR takes, Schonveld says: ‘I’d strongly say that in this country it needs to be non-violent, and I wouldn’t necessarily include property in that definition of non-violence - but I’m not thinking it would be a great idea to go around smashing things up.’

Is it okay to throw a rock through an oil company’s window? ‘As long as you’re really sure there’s no-one on the other side - but there hasn’t been any suggestion we’d be doing anything like that,’ she says.

Schonveld is clear that she’s willing to go prison. ‘I wouldn’t be comfortable going to prison, I would be very uncomfortable and frightened, but I think that we’re very badly in danger of making life on this planet extinct. For me it’s worth going to prison to try and make a change.’

For years, Schonveld has been a ‘climate activist’ quietly trying to get her voice heard. But it’s got nowhere. Now, according to Schonveld, it's time to take things further.


WALKER came to Scotland from England to go to university and is about to embark on a career in meteorology. He’s now a key organiser in XR.

He lives in Edinburgh and got involved after sending a message to the XR Glasgow group asking if they had plans to do anything in the capital. They said ‘no, but you can, so I did,’ he explains.

Walker arranged the first XR meeting in Edinburgh last November. He thought about 30 people would come along - nearly 250 piled into the Augustine Church, and another 50 who couldn’t get inside set up their own meeting in a nearby pub.

Within a week, they held their first protest at Holyrood, and in two months were organised enough to pull off the Parliament occupation.

The son of a teacher and a door-to-door double-glazing salesman who became a Labour councillor, Walker says he was compelled to take action over climate change after last year’s ‘Beast from the East’ snows. ‘It was colder outside the artic circle than in some parts of the artic circle,’ he says.

For Walker, humanity is in the middle of a ‘mass extinction event’ and fighting to tackle climate change is ‘the most important struggle of our times’.

Walker thinks carefully about any form of direct action. He was concerned when a security guard approached him during the Holyrood occupation and said he feared he might lose his job.

‘I do worry about the impact of our action, but you need to balance that with the impact of non-action,’ he says. ‘I would say blocking roads, making people late, shutting down oil refineries - that’s fine.

‘If you’re complicit - if you’re a bank that profits from climate change, if you’re an energy company which profits from climate change, then we want to make your life as difficult as possible.’ He’s clear, though, that XR won’t go after individual CEOs, or target their homes. ‘It’s about the systems, not the individuals.’


McNULTY says she comes from a family that’s ‘small-c conservative’. They’re law-abiding, traditional Labour voters who switched to the SNP. Her father’s a police officer and her mother a make-up artist.

You might think, then, that her family wouldn’t be too pleased with her preparing to potentially break the law for her beliefs at such a young age. But that’s not quite the case. ‘Both my mum and dad are sympathetic to green causes,’ she says. ‘I was talking to my dad about [XR] and obviously he is a police officer but he said it was for a good cause.

‘For me, the law is the law, but if the law is unjust or immoral or doesn’t uphold the social contract - for me the social contract has been broken as the government isn’t upholding its responsibility - then I don’t see myself under any obligation to follow laws that are killing the planet.’

Climate change is shaping McNulty’s life choices - she’s studying sustainable development at Edinburgh university because of her beliefs. She got involved with XR after seeing Walker’s Facebook post for the inaugural Edinburgh meeting, but couldn’t get in as the event was so ‘jam-packed’. The parliament demonstration was her first direct action.

For her, politicians only pay lip service to climate change - while at the same time propping up dirty industries like oil. ‘How can you do both?’ she asks.

McNulty sees XR as ‘taking the conversation out of traditional halls of power where things happen out of our control’. Where else is there to go, she asks, except toward non-violent direct action when governments behave with criminal negligence. ‘We’ve tried writing letters,’ she adds.

However, ‘to engage in violent action within the political context of the UK doesn’t make sense,’ she says. ‘It’s going to damage the cause, alienate people and rile up bad press - so there’s no point … I don’t think smashing a window is a violent thing to do, inherently - it’s a window, not a person.’

People must not be hurt or intimidated, though, McNulty says. ‘We come with love, but we also come with rage. We’re doing this for each other.’