Is an emergency mindset the way ahead for climate activism?

7 Dec 2023

Just Stop Oil activists walking up Whitehall, London. Image: Alisdare Hickson/Flickr (CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED)

Alex de Koning of Just Stop Oil thinks that his group is taking one for the team by accepting unpopularity in their fight against the formidable fossil fuel industry.

Just Stop Oil has become one of the faces of civil resistance against governments and powerful players in the fossil fuel industry across the UK and Europe. Hundreds of protests have been held since the group first sprung into action last year, from the obstruction of traffic and disruption of public events to throwing soup at a famous Van Gogh painting.

Last week, for instance, 16 Just Stop Oil protestors were arrested outside UK prime minister Rishi Sunak’s residence. Holding placards that claimed a failure of the ongoing COP28 in Dubai will lead to crop failures around the world, the protestors were also taking a stand against Sunak’s decision to issue new oil and gas licences in the North Sea.

And earlier today, the UK Met Police estimated that the group – which equates its methods to the civil rights movement and suffragettes – has cost the department almost £20m. Just Stop Oil campaigners are by no means oblivious to the disruption being causes by their actions. Then what’s stopping them from resorting to more moderate means?

Alex de Koning, the 25-year-old Just Stop Oil spokesperson and PhD student who told me last weekend about the importance of using visual imagery to communicate the climate crisis to the public, was one of many speakers at the SCI:COM science communication conference in Dublin yesterday (6 December).

Urgency akin to the pandemic

His argument in defence of Just Stop Oil’s actions is simple: only an “emergency” mindset can have meaningful impact when it comes to the climate crisis.

“We can do so many great things in society when we think about this as an emergency,” said the research student of green hydrogen production at Newcastle University who took seven months out of his PhD last year to join protests, some of which got him arrested.

“We can change factories overnight like we did in World War Two. We can put the money and resources in the right places and create three vaccines in the space of a year that would normally take 10 to 15 years each like we did in the pandemic.”

His speech came as COP28 – the UN climate change conference that has been widely criticised for its policies, some of which may be counterintuitive – is in full swing in Dubai, ironically presided over by chief executive of Abu Dhabi National Oil, Sultan Al-Jaber.

“He is using the conference to try and make more oil and gas deals. This is not a faceless crisis. And that’s why we need to Just Stop Oil and send a message to these people,” de Koning told me over the weekend.

“Because while individual action is great, ultimately, as long as we have those oil and gas barons and billionaires who do not have our best interest at heart polluting the way that they are, everything else we do is just mopping up with the petrol tap open.”

‘Credibility gap’

While those who do not deny we have a climate crisis at hand also do not deny that Just Stop Oil has its heart in the right place, there have been concerns that its radical approach may take away from the credibility of more moderate proponents of climate activism.

One audience member said in response to de Koning at SCI:COM yesterday, “You talk about the need for empathy and credibility, but where’s the credibility in defacing a Van Gogh painting? Extreme stunts such as this will mean you will always have a credibility gap.”

For de Koning, moderate approaches to standing up against anti-climate policies have not been effective. “Nobody is going to listen to you if they can’t hear you. You can’t make change without millions of eyeballs,” he told the audience.

“And when we’re facing a media in the UK that is owned by a handful of billionaires, you don’t get reported on unless you can be vilified.

“It’s time to stop sugarcoating. To do something proportional to what we’re facing. Writing a petition to stop the end of everything is simply not going to cut it. Because never forget what we’re fighting for: not just to lower emissions but to survive the climate crisis.”

‘Opening the space’ for moderates

It’s clear that Just Stop Oil is not looking for popularity. De Koning said as much in his responses to questions yesterday, that the group’s methods will always be unpopular and disrupt the lives of people even if they are not directly responsible for the actions that are exacerbating the climate crisis.

“Every single movement that asked for radical change in history has been hated. Martin Luther King was the most hated man in America at the time, the suffragettes were despised, but they kept going because they knew that they needed to,” he said.

“I see it as us sucking up that hate and hopefully opening the space for more moderate people, more scientists to start speaking out and not get as much of the hate.”

It remains to be seen if Just Stop Oil turns out to be a boon or a bane for global climate activism as it continues to fuel the rage of climate deniers and oil magnates, but what can be said with a degree of certainty is that we may have a lot more to worry about than soupy Van Gogh paintings if the fossil fuel industry is allowed to continue status quo unfettered.

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Just Stop Oil Activists walking up Whitehall, London. Image: Alisdare Hickson/Flickr (CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED)

Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic