With a flurry of climate demonstrations across Europe, the UK faces its own protest mobilization from the environmentalist activist group Just Stop Oil. With more activity planned in the run-up to Christmas, this article examines the motives driving the group and the effectiveness of their year-long efforts.
Who is Just Stop Oil?
Just Stop Oil is an environmental activist splinter group of Extinction Rebellion, founded in the early months of this year. From their website, Stop Oil claims to be a “rapidly growing movement” which will mobilize 3,000 people “from all walks of life to oppose government plans to allow 40 new oil, gas, and coal projects by 2025".
According to evidence uncovered by the Policy Exchange think tank, Stop Oil began recruiting university members earlier in the year by placing posters around UK campuses. One recruitment sign read:
“The breakdown of the climate is destroying the economy. It will ruin your job, family, this community, and this town. It will lead to slaughter, war, and mass starvation.
“It will be the biggest disaster in history. You can sit around and just let it happen, or you can take responsibility to protect those you love.”
Just Stop Oil view imminent global action as the only way to ensure a livable future as climate change continues to deteriorate the planet’s health rapidly. They believe that the action taken over the next 3-4 years will have significant ramifications on the future well-being of the earth. The failure to reduce carbon emissions will, according to Just Stop Oil, place a massive burden on young people to undertake investments to remove carbon from the atmosphere in future years or to suffer the consequences of a worsening climate.
Climate Action Tracker has indicated that current global policy inaction will result in temperatures warming 1.5 degrees Celsius as early as 2026-2029. The implications of warming beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius include threats to global food security and vast regions of the world becoming too hot to live in, including the tropics - home to 40% of the world’s population. By 2030, 10 million deaths each year are predicted to occur due to heat stress, followed the next decade by droughts that would affect global cropland and cause famine, migration, political instability, and conflict. By 2070, it is estimated that one-third of the world’s population could be exposed to temperatures only found in the Sahara.
The United Nations and the International Energy Agency have called for an immediate end to new fossil fuel production and subsidies. National governments, however, are yet to heed their warning and are set to produce twice the amount of fossil fuels by 2030 than would be consistent with limiting temperature warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Just Stop Oil’s Demands
Unlike Extinction Rebellion, which campaigned on the singular issue of climate change, Just Stop Oil protests focus on ending fossil fuel reliance. On its website, Just Stop Oil describes itself as a “coalition of groups working together to ensure the government commits to halting new fossil fuel licensing and production." The group aims to curb government plans for new oil, gas, and coal licenses.
The UK government has set legally binding climate change targets to reduce emissions by 78% by 2035 (compared to levels in 1990). Despite this, by 2025, the UK government plans to license more than 100 new gas and oil projects, including 40 new North Sea oil and gas fields. These policies are incompatible with UK climate change targets and undermine the UK’s climate commitments. Just Stop Oil insists that the government must align fossil fuel production with its climate targets.
With no new fossil fuel licenses for exploration and production, oil and gas reserves should last for another eight years. Just Stop Oil believes that government should use this timescale to transition away from fossil fuels. During this period, the government should incentivize the most cost-effective technologies to reform the market to cater to the transition to zero carbon.
As well as investment in renewable energy, Just Stop Oil also demands that the government take responsibility for insulating Britain, setting up a zero-carbon standard for all housing construction to provide better thermal insulation to avoid energy waste. In 2015, the UK government cut energy-efficient subsidies. Additionally, it scrapped its plans to make all new homes zero-carbon standard, which meant that all homes built since then have been built with lower energy-efficient standards and, consequently, higher energy bills.
Climate and Cost of Living Crisis
Relying on fossil fuels has left the UK vulnerable to global energy price hikes as the country relies on imports for a significant proportion of its energy demands. Globally, oil companies have massively benefitted from the ban on Russian oil following the Russia-Ukraine war, causing gas prices to hit an all-time high. Oil giant company Shell reported its highest quarterly profit since 2008 during the first three months of the year, with earnings of $9.1 billion. This is compared to $3.2 billion over a year earlier.
British energy provider BP announced $8.5 billion and $8.2 billion profits during April through June and July through September, respectively — their highest quarterly profits since the summer of 2008. Environmental campaigners call BP’s profits “obscene” as they come at a cost for millions of people in the UK as energy bills continue to soar. Estimates are that 15 million people in the UK now live in fuel poverty.
Chief scientist for Greenpeace UK, Doug Parr, remarked:
“While households are being plunged into poverty with knock-on-impacts for the whole economy, fossil fuel companies are laughing all the way to the bank. The government is failing the UK and the climate in its hour of need. The government must bring a proper windfall tax on these monster profits and stop giving companies massive tax breaks on destructive new fossil fuel investments”.
Just Stop Oil asserts that the government is actively enabling the fossil fuel industry through subsidies and tax breaks for new fossil fuel extraction. Their policy remains focused on attracting fossil fuel investment. As a result, the UK has one of the most generous tax regimes for oil and gas producers in the world and is the worst among G20 nations for its level of support for fossil fuels. The Just Stop Oil website claims that for the production and consumption of fossil fuels pre-Covid have amounted to £12 billion per year — equivalent to £230 million every week.
Just Stop Oil demands that the country’s reliance on fossil fuels should end by 2030, and this can only be done through massive investments in clean technology, renewables, and energy storage. A vital requirement for this is transferring government subsidies for fossil fuels towards clean energy, transport, and insulation.
Just Stop Oil believes that investing in renewable energy and reducing the energy demand is essential in improving the UK’s energy security and will enable the UK to meet its carbon reduction targets cost-effectively. |By reducing the energy demand, it will allow the UK to avoid the cost of building a larger than necessary clean energy system. Quoting a from the UK government Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy, Just Stop Oil also points out that renewables are now the cheapest form of energy generation in the UK.
Just Stop Oil’s Tactics
Like their predecessors Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain, Just Stop Oil activists utilize “non-violent civil resistance” in public spaces around the UK. To demand action, they intend to continue using tactics such as strikes, boycotts, mass protests, and disruptions. Just Stop Oil claims non-violent civil resistance as their legal right in response to government decisions that directly harm their livelihoods. They view the government’s failure to reduce carbon emissions a direct violation of their citizen’s rights.
Just Stop Oil came to attention following a series of protests in March 2022, including the planned pitch invasion at several Premier League football grounds where one activist tried to tie himself to a goalpost. Other notable protests have followed, such as disruption at oil terminals and on some of the UK’s busiest motorways. Protestors have attempted to disrupt the British Grand Prix and controversially caused the closure of the M25 with a series of demonstrations. To clarify, during an interview with Sky News in October, Just Stop Oil spokesperson Emma Brown assured that the group has a ‘blue light policy’ to let emergency vehicles through traffic blocks created by protesters.
Furthermore, to force government action, Just Stop Oil staged a month of disruption —from the end of September throughout October— which resulted in 677 arrests and 111 people being charged by the Metropolitan Police. The sign outside New Scotland Yard was defaced, as were luxury car dealerships in Mayfair, with activists spray-painting the showrooms.
Justifying their action on the Just Stop Oil Twitter Account, activist Carmen Lean rationalized: “'In what world is it ok to buy and sell luxury cars, when people can't afford to eat or heat their homes, or when people all over the world are suffering and dying from the climate crisis... Inequality is what's driving the climate crisis.”
Nonetheless, what garnered the group the most headline-worthy attention —and criticism— was their protestors throwing tomato soup at Van Gogh’s Sunflowers at the National Gallery in London in October. It is worth noting that the painting was covered in a glass case and was intentionally unharmed. Phoebe Plummer, a 21-year-old student, involved in the protest at the National Gallery, commented on its backlash:
"I understand people must be frustrated with us, and rightly so, but we have to disrupt daily life because we are hurtling towards climate catastrophe, yet the Government continues to betray me, my generation and people in the global south by issuing new oil, licenses."
An unnamed Just Stop Oil protestor spoke out following the incident:
“I recognize that it looks like a ridiculous action. I agree; it is ridiculous. But we’re not asking, ‘Should everybody be throwing soup on paintings?’.
“We’re getting the conversation going so we can ask the questions that matter. Questions like, ‘Is it ok that Liz Truss is licensing over 100 new fossil fuel licenses? Is it ok that fossil fuels are subsidized 30 times more than renewables when the offshore wind is currently nine times cheaper than fossil fuels?’”
Alex de Koning, a spokesperson for Just Stop Oil, also contributed, “People can’t afford to heat a tin of soup. The government seeks to accelerate fossil fuel production, which will kill millions of people, and is failing to address the worst cost of living crisis this country has ever seen.”
Koning argued that people seemed more outraged by them throwing soup on a (glass-case protected) Van Gogh painting than the 33 million people displaced by floods in Pakistan. According to the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund, torrential monsoon rains triggered the most severe flooding in Pakistan’s recent history. Villages were washed away, leaving almost 10 million children needing immediate, lifesaving support. Even so, Koning continued, stating that Just Stop Oil will persist in their demonstration until the government makes a meaningful statement about ending new fossil fuel assets in the UK.
The response to Just Stop Oil
The reaction to the activist group is divided. While some support the group’s bold actions to draw attention to the climate crisis, others believe they discourage people from the cause due to their disruptive methods.
Contributing to the public response, some government ministers have also voiced their responses. UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman blamed the climate protests on “Guardian-reading-tofu-eating wokerati.” Labour leader Keir Starmer has labeled those taking part as “arrogant” and “wrong.” Business secretary Grant Shapps described the M25 disruptions as “completely outrageous.”
Another controversy is that the Metropolitan Police has purportedly dedicated more than 10,000 officer shifts to policing the Just Stop Oil protests since the start of October. Assistant Commissioner Matt Twist argues that "These are officers who would otherwise be dealing with issues that matter to local communities, such as knife crime, safeguarding and responding to burglaries.” In response, Stop Oil claims that these non-violent actions are necessary to get their demands across to the government — to end all future licensing for fossil fuel development and production.
Effectiveness of Just Stop Oil’s Protests
In an with The Guardian, Professor Winnifred Louis, a social psychologist at the University of Queensland, argues that radical actions, such as those employed by Just Stop Oil, have historically been influential in effecting social change. The primary reason is raising awareness— media outlets are more likely to cover sensational actions that defy social norms. Disruptive action exerts the ‘radical flank effect’ in which radical factions increase support for and identification with more moderate groups in the same movement.
However, research also suggests that radical tactics can reduce popular support for social movements despite raising awareness — this is known as the ‘activist’s dilemma.’ Lizzie-Wilson, the Researcher Associate at the University of Queensland, explains that radical actions are less persuasive and more polarising for issues including animal welfare and abortion rights. Her into the responses to animal rights groups found that radical actions (such as undercover investigations at factory farms) were perceived as being less compelling and legitimate than more conventional tactics (such as advocating for legislative reform).
Research on this issue is, nonetheless, contested. A Social Change Lab review published in October 2022 found it “likely that a nonviolent radical flank will increase will increase an overall movement’s likelihood of achieving policy wins.” Additionally, a 2020 Research by Dylan Bugden from the Washington State University on the effectiveness of climate protests found that radical climate action does not alienate those who were already sympathetic to the cause.
Just Stop Oil’s protests play a fundamental role in whereby subordinate groups raise awareness by employing tactics which might make the news, thereby influencing public perception. For example, following Insulate Britain’s protests beginning in September 2021, the number of mentions of the word ‘insulation’ in UK print media doubled. There is also evidence that home insulation has risen to the policy agenda since the protests.
Ultimately, radical demonstrative actions receive negative media attention and, therefore, widespread public disapproval. Yet, the social research in the field seems to suggest that such acts as those performed by Just Stop Oil produce limited adverse results and may increase support and attention to the issues being championed.
Just Stop Oil Disruptive Activity Planned in December
In response to Just Stop Oil’s demonstration plans in December, Commander Karen Findlay of Met Operations has issued a statement:
“We understand [Just Stop Oil] are now set to cause further disruption in London in the run-up to Christmas, from 28 November to 14 December. However, we are again fully prepared.”
“We will arrive quickly, deal with the situation efficiently, remove and arrest activists as appropriate and return things to normal as soon as possible. Please do not take matters into your own hands. “We are determined to bring to justice all those activists who cause disruption or damage to London.”
Just Stop Oil’s tactics have proved divisive, diverting police attention and interrupting the daily lives of many commuters and pedestrians. However, with such a time-pressing issue, perhaps such divisive actions are necessary to bring the climate issue to the forefront swiftly. Just Stop Oil is putting pressure on the UK government to commit to its climate targets and calling into question the incompatibility of their new gas and oil licenses. As millions in the UK are pushed into fuel poverty, diverting subsidies away from fossil fuel production and investments in clean energy has never been more essential. If government action in the next few years is vital for the preservation of the longevity of the planet, then Just Stop Oil’s efforts are critical to holding the UK government accountable.
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