Surprise will have been many people’s understandable reaction to learning that Extinction Rebellion, the environmentalist network, was listed by British counter-terrorism police alongside violent neo-Nazi and Islamist groups in a guide to “extremist ideologies”. The document, issued to schools, included instructions to look out for those who use “strong or emotive terms” when discussing climate change or pollution. Since 2015, teachers have been under a statutory duty to refer students suspected of extremist sympathies to the anti-terror Prevent programme, with education now the main source of referrals (in 2017-18 these included 2009 children under 15).

A suggestion that participation “in planned school walkouts” could be grounds for suspicion is particularly egregious, given that the school strike movement’s stated aim is for governments to act on climate scientists’ warnings. But what is particularly dispiriting about this ill-judged document is that the bracketing of green groups with terrorists is far from a one-off. Instead, and as numerous activists spied on by police in the past know (including an unknown number of women tricked into sexual relationships by officers), the treatment of environmentalists as dangerous subversives is consistent with longstanding attitudes to green issues at the highest levels of the British state.

Such views do not have a monopoly. Sir Peter Fahy, the former police chief who led Prevent from 2010 to 2015, has criticised the approach to Extinction Rebellion as counterproductive. But at a time when public concern about the climate emergency in many countries has never been higher, with bushfires ravaging Australia and new analysis showing record rises in ocean temperatures, the decision of the home secretary, Priti Patel, to highlight alleged “security risks” from green groups when asked about the issue is grounds for alarm. Climate policymaking is a global challenge and the stakes in 2020 could not be higher. If legally binding cuts on greenhouse gas emissions are not agreed at a crunch round of UN talks in December, then the world will be in a very dark place indeed (experts say emissions must be reduced by 7.6% per year for a decade if we are to avoid the most destructive scenarios).

With that summit due to be held in Glasgow, the UK government has a vital role to play. But so does civil society, including activist groups such as Extinction Rebellion. The litany of failures of climate policy so far suggests that unless millions of people exert pressure on their leaders, governments will fail to take the necessary steps.

In this context, it is a grotesque distortion of reality to suggest that young people who join peaceful climate protests bear any resemblance to terrorists. Fossil fuel companies, and asset managers such as Vanguard that consistently oppose climate resolutions, show far greater recklessness with regard to human life. Extinction Rebellion’s founders may declare support for alternatives to capitalism, but their grasp of climate science belongs not beyond the pale, but in the mainstream.

Of course, the police must prepare for the disruption caused by civil disobedience. Such actions do not command universal support and in some cases are planned to maximise pressure on police resources. But none of this has anything to do with counter-terrorism. The government’s delayed review of Prevent must now take place, with a thorough examination of this episode as part of its remit, and clear advice as to how those affected can seek redress.


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