Why I left Extinction Rebellion to campaign for nuclear power

A live TV appearance on the Andrew Neil Show was my moment of reckoning – it was XR versus scientific evidence

Zion Lights: 'No group or movement I joined seemed to be making any difference'
Zion Lights: 'No group or movement I joined seemed to be making any difference' Credit:  Jay Williams/The Telegraph

I’ve been an environmental activist for almost as long as I remember. As a student in the early Noughties, I helped establish the first green group Reading University ever had; I was involved in the (now disbanded) Camp for Climate Action in my early 20s, protesting against investment in the tar sands industry (which is used to make petroleum products). I lived and breathed a eco-aware lifestyle, and still do: based in Devon with my two young daughters, I don’t drive or fly or eat meat; our carbon footprint is relatively low.

But no group or movement I joined seemed to be making any difference. Carbon emissions were still rising and nothing was changing. Instead, climate change was only getting worse. I was scared we were running out of time to act.

Then, about two years ago, Extinction Rebellion (XR) - the group that last weekend blocked the printworks of several British newspapers including The Daily Telegraph - burst into being. It had been some years since I’d been involved with any green group, but what appealed to me about this one was that they were saying “don’t listen to us, listen to the scientists.” It seemed like this movement was going to be fact-driven and evidence-based, which was badly needed. Yet after almost two years of XR membership, I have quit to campaign for nuclear energy.

I had joined in April 2018 aged 34 and became founding editor of its newspaper, The Hourglass, and soon was one of the group’s spokespeople. In the years since my activism days, and after having my first child, I had gone back to university to do a Master’s in Science Communication and was ready to put what I’d learned into action. Joining XR gave me that opportunity: as a spokesperson I found myself front and centre of the media spotlight, speaking to millions of people about the ongoing climate emergency.

Zion Lights: 'Members of XR don’t need to make up numbers - the truth is frightening enough' Credit:  Jay Williams/The Telegraph

But when I was invited onto The Andrew Neil Show last October, I found myself forced to defend statements by one of XR’s founders that “billions” of deaths would happen soon because of climate change.  

I couldn’t defend those numbers because they didn’t have a basis in science. So I was faced with an awful choice on live TV: either I could stand up for science or I could defend XR. I had to choose the former, because for me, sticking with the evidence is the most important thing of all.

As a result, I looked bad, and was also then criticised by XR. I felt like I had been thrown under the bus and stopped being a spokeswoman for the group; in May, I edited my final issue of The Hourglass, and left the following month. Some members were supportive but other members reacted negatively - at that point, though, I felt I had no other choice.

It all seemed so unnecessary. Members of XR don’t need to make up numbers - the truth is frightening enough. We are facing a climate emergency: food production will not be able to keep pace with climate heating, and large parts of the globe will be rendered uninhabitable to humans if we allow the temperature to keep on rising.

But the hyperbole of some key XR people wasn’t the group’s only problem. It had grown quickly and was making organisational errors, which is understandable given the pace of events, but did affect the movement’s reputation. When activists targeted the London transport network on October 17, angry commuters were prevented from travelling to work by protesters who’d climbed on to the roof of a train at Canning Town station. At Shadwell, other activists blocked the Docklands Light Railway. This was the work of a separate climate group protesting under the broad XR banner.

Extinction Rebellion protesters demonstrate outside Parliament on September 9, 2020 Credit:  ANDY RAIN/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Targeting electricity-powered public transport was of course seen as a terrible idea for a green movement, and the backlash it provoked was inevitable. Many of us inside XR knew it was unwise, but there’d been little time to discuss it before the action went ahead, and no real process for dealing with the fall-out.

The recent action aimed at the press has proved equally controversial. I have a lot of sympathy with those concerned about protecting freedom of speech and of the press: those are my values too.

XR gets heavily criticised for not appealing to more people. But they would argue they’ve achieved their aims because everyone’s been talking about it.

I understand this ambition to force a conversation, but from my perspective it won’t change anything unless you can bring about concrete solutions. And that is the single biggest problem with most environmental groups: they don’t offer realistic solutions to the very real climate change threat. What they offer, if you follow their arguments to their logical conclusion, is eco-austerity: that we should all use less energy, stop going on holiday, live in colder homes, and so on.

We simply don’t have time to go on having pointless ideological debates. And even if we agree to permanent eco-austerity in Western countries, what about the developing world? There are some members of environmental groups who truly believe we should live extremely constrained lifestyles, much like people in the Punjab village my parents are from. I have spent time there and it was heartbreaking. In many villages in the region they have no electricity and no infrastructure. Children die from health problems we in the West can easily cure.  

Police officers stand next to activists taking part in an Extinction Rebellion protest in Westminster, on September 8, 2020 Credit: HENRY NICHOLLS/ REUTERS

Some of those who promote an eco-austerity agenda will tell you, “They live simpler lives so they’re happy.” Believe me: they are not. My parents never once looked back after leaving for the UK. They, like everyone, wanted the vaccines and hospitals and technology we have in the West. People who argue we need to all live with less - as I once did - should think hard about what this actually means. I am personally happy to live with less, but decades of behavioural science study has not convinced most people to take the same path. We need to accept it’s not going to happen, and look to solutions instead.

Many within XR argue in favour of replacing fossil fuels entirely with renewables. I favour a pragmatic approach, rather than peer-group tribal pressure to stick to an outdated mainstream green line. Once you demand that all our power must come from wind and solar, you seriously constrain our options to achieve net zero carbon emissions in the timescale required. To make a serious contribution to decarbonising the UK economy, solar parks would need to cover whole counties, and wind farms dominate most of our coastline and uplands. With less or even no nuclear energy, we would need to devote even more of our land to industrial scale renewables, leaving much less for farming and nature.

There won’t be any space for rewilding in this scenario. This is not a trade-off that can be avoided by bluster and belief. This needs to be an evidence-based and numbers-focused debate, not an ideological one.

Unfortunately much of the green movement, including a fair proportion of those in XR, is steeped in an anti-nuclear mindset, when any rational, evidence-based approach shows that a strategy including nuclear energy is the only realistic solution to driving down emissions at the scale and speed required.

My values haven’t changed. I care deeply about the same issues I’ve always cared about. So it’s not a U-turn, but a logical next step to devote myself to looking more at solutions than shouting ever more loudly about the problem.

Stunts and protests are a popular campaigning tool. But the environmental message needs to be followed up with real solutions.

As told to Rosa Silverman