Former and current Extinction Rebellion members and other environmentalists have accused the group of setting back action on climate change by blocking the printing of several newspapers.
On Friday night, activists blockaded the printing plants where The Telegraph and several other newspapers are printed, delaying their publication.
One former prominent member of Extinction Rebellion said the move had turned environmental activism into a ‘culture war’.
“Journalists from all the papers XR blockaded have been working hard to report the climate crisis while thousands of people from every part of the UK are tackling it,” said the former activist, who stepped back from the group last year.
“More needs to be done but it makes no sense to deliberately adopt divisive and partisan culture war tactics at a time when bolder action on climate change is winning support from people right across politics and right across almost the full spectrum of public opinion in Britain.”
The move is understood to have caused disquiet among several former and current members of the group over fears it may provoke a backlash among the public.
One current Extinction Rebellion activist, who also declined to be named, said the move risked alienating newspaper readers, including her own grandfather.
“He is someone who wants to act on the climate, he sees it as important,” she said. “If he reads Extinction Rebellion stopped his paper coming, that’s not going to make him feel more positive about the movement.”
“I wonder if this strategy, longer term, is the right one, because we need to be united in terms of how we start communicating about climate change.”
XR’s decision to take direct action against newspapers it disagrees with is in contradiction to its earlier strategy, which sought to engage with all sections of the media.
In a 2019 statement the group said: “We would like to be very clear this is not a calling out of all media, but a calling in of those that work at the Daily Mail, Mail Online, Mail on Sunday, Daily Telegraph and The Sun.”
The move was also criticised by environmental activists and policymakers, including from those who have supported Extinction Rebellion in the past.
Greenpeace, who backed the group when it shut down parts of central London last year, said that while XR’s core message was “undisputed”, “a free, diverse press and the right to peaceful protest are both expressions of free speech and hallmarks of a healthy democracy.”
Its executive director John Sauven added: “Greenpeace has been working with the news media for five decades, and we know the absolutely vital role they play in informing the public, exposing environmental abuse, and holding powerful interests to account.”
Bob Ward, the policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change, said: “The criticism XR make of these newspapers is legitimate. But this is not the right way to tackle that problem.”
XR was also accused of hijacking the environmental movement, which has had growing support across the political spectrum in recent years.
Ben Caldecott, the founding Director of the Oxford Sustainable Finance Programme and a Government adviser on climate finance said Extinction Rebellion risked setting back environmental policy. “It’s very hard immediately after that kind of thing to want to give the green movement, the environment movement, a big win,” he said.
He said the move risked drawing political divisions across green issues that have built up consensus in recent years. “Whoever made the calls on this action made a really bad one,” he said.
Richard Black, the head of non-partisan think tank the Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit said: “These actions obviously get climate change in the headlines but they’re highly polarising – surveys show that while support for a clean energy transition is higher than it’s ever been across British society, a substantial proportion of the public finds XR’s methods off-putting.
“So a question XR needs to address is whether the feeling of additional urgency they inject into public discourse strengthens their case more than the polarisation they engender weakens it.”