Just Stop Oil: The Debate 

Headlines detailing damage to precious artworks, disruptions to events, and road closures have plagued the news recently. Direct action to combat the climate crisis has become part and parcel of Britain’s landscape and a common method to evoke change. Such direct action is not foreign to the British public, from the protests of the Suffragettes to sit-ins and road blockages carried out by Extinction Rebellion, but the scale and damage of Just Stop Oil’s recent protests may seem unprecedented. Unlike Extinction Rebellion, whose aims are targeted at general environmental improvement and protection, Just Stop Oil is more explicit in its demands. They want the government to commit to halting new fossil fuel licensing and production, most notably its plans to licence more than 100 new oil and gas projects by 2050. The political climate has also changed dramatically since Extinction Rebellion was first founded in 2018. In the last 5 years, the general public, and consequently politicians, have become increasingly aware of the climate crisis we are facing, with many becoming more committed to easing its effects. However, this awareness has also been met by a growing sense of urgency and climate anxiety, which in turn has led to a scaling up of protests’ nature: the sight of a road blockade or protesters glueing themselves to trains is no longer a sensationalised novelty. Due to the evolving nature that Just Stop Oil protests are taking, the movement is losing public support:  a YouGov survey of 1,700 adults conducted during the peak of the group’s action in October 2022, showed that the majority of the general public was opposed to the group’s actions. Met with a declining climate in urgent need of political reform, and a seemingly apathetic public, Just Stop Oil faces two major challenges; how to remain relevant, and how to engender actual change in an unwavering government?

Recently the climate activist Phoebe Plummer from Just Stop Oil was invited to the Earth Sciences Department at the University of Oxford. Plummer rose to prominence in October 2022 when she, along with other activists, threw soup at Van Gogh’s Sunflowers in London’s National Gallery. Plummer reasoned after the protest that “The cost of living crisis is part of the cost of oil crisis, fuel is unaffordable to millions of cold, hungry families. They can’t even afford to heat a tin of soup.” Just Stop Oil undeniably gained public attention through this memorable act, however they did so by provoking large-scale anger. No lasting damage was done to the Van Gogh, but the image of tomato soup plastered over a priceless and irreplaceable piece of artwork had had its impact. The general opinion after the event expressed anger towards the protesters, but to the protestors, the sacrifice was necessary, and an easy one to make. Plummer stated after the action:

What is worth more, art or life? … are you more concerned about the protection of a painting or the protection of our planet and people?” 

With this rationale, one can surely be sympathetic to the cause? James Skeet, a spokesperson for Just Stop Oil, expressed this exact opinion in an interview to the Cherwell newspaper: “History has shown time and time again that disruptive civil tactics are a large component of what brings about change…most of the rights we enjoy today didn’t come about through polite asking but through people making the nuisance of themselves and demanding change.” But as understandable as the reasoning may be, are they actually effective? 

If we are to take their aim to be gaining momentum and change in the UK’s oil policies, these methods have proven to be unsuccessful: according to a YouGov survey, just 21% of respondents said they supported the protester’s actions, compared with 64% who opposed them. Furthermore, some of Just Stop Oils’ tactics are illegal; take the Van Gough protest for example, which did constitute vandalism. Between 1 October 2022 and 14 December 2022, the Metropolitan Police made over 750 arrests relating to Just Stop Oil protests. This alone cost the taxpayer over £7.5 million, and the total cost of policing Just Stop Oil protests is now over £14.5 million. This is the case for most large-scale protests, with the Extinction Rebellion protest in October 2019 requiring over 418,000 hours of police work. In 2021, at least 18 environmental protesters from Insulate Britain faced time in prison for their peaceful protests. It was these increased costs and the diversion of police from local communities that motivated the government to enact the Public Order Bill in May 2023. 

Just Stop Oil’s reasoning holds – we are facing a global climate crisis, one with catastrophic impacts, and Just Stop Oil are forcing this into the headlines, against the cries of many attempting to deny or belittle it. Just Stop Oil, as of December 2022, has over 1,000 active protesters prepared to be arrested for their cause. Placing their civil liberties on the line for the cause powerfully alerts us to the need for urgent, meaningful change. The oil industry knew at least 50 years ago that air pollution from burning fossil fuels posed serious risks to human health. But unless we reduce emissions rapidly, the world is likely to exceed 2°C of warming, the critical temperature according to the IPCC. Almost 60% of oil and gas reserves and 90% of coal must remain in the ground to keep global warming below 1.5°C, scientists say. For these reasons, the 1.5C limit is at the heart of the 2015 Paris climate agreement, which bound countries to hold global temperature rises “well below 2C” and “pursuing efforts” to 1.5C. However, at this rate, by the end of this century, warming could potentially reach 4°C, possibly more. This would have disastrous consequences, such as the melting of polar ice and subsequent rising sea levels. Ice in the Arctic is already 65% thinner than it was in 1975, and the MET Office states that if we do not reduce emissions soon, we could see ice-free summers in the Arctic by the middle of this century. 39 per cent of the global population live within 100 kilometres from a shoreline, placing them at serious risk of flooding if sea levels continue to rise.

Without climate action, the damage will be immeasurable, and all that we hold dear may fail to exist – this message has increasingly resonated with the population. Slowly, the movement is gaining traction, even if their methods remain controversial. 

History often looks sympathetically on those who risk great sacrifice for progress. The Suffragettes orchestrated an arson and bombing campaign between 1912 and 1914 resulting in many injuries, damage, and even deaths; in Dundee four postmen were severely injured as a result of phosphorus chemicals left in post boxes by Suffragettes. What the Suffragettes fought for is now considered an unalienable right to much of the UK population, and perhaps future generations will reflect similarly on the acts of Just Stop Oil. Maybe only time will tell who is on the right side of history?

Image Description: Just Stop Oil protestors

Image Credits: alisdare1 via Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)