Just Stop Oil activist’s take on how to talk about the climate crisis

5 Dec 2023

Image: Alex de Koning

Ahead of his talk at SCI:COM tomorrow, Just Stop Oil campaigner and spokesperson Alex de Koning tells Vish Gain that the climate crisis is not a ‘faceless’ crisis.

Alex de Koning is no stranger to patronising questions. As one of the main spokespersons of the Just Stop Oil campaign in the UK, the 25-year-old has become accustomed to passive ridicule of his group’s modus operandi to highlight the climate crisis – civil resistance.

The facts, however, are on the table: the climate is getting warmer, this warming is a result of an increase in greenhouse gases being pumped into the atmosphere, and a major chunk of these emissions are a direct result of the global fossil fuel industry.

But the most effective method to get this message across to governments, industry and the ordinary person is up for debate.

‘This is not a faceless crisis’

While the more moderate climate activists channel their frustration with the status quo through campaigning and lobbying at events such as COP28 – currently in full swing in Dubai – de Koning and his colleagues prefer a more radical approach.

In an interview over the weekend, I spoke to the young PhD student at Newcastle University about his views on communication around the climate crisis, why more people aren’t campaigning and how best to get people’s attention.

“I mean, look at COP28 happening right now, in the United Arab Emirates of all places, hosted by the CEO of one of the biggest oil companies in the world,” said de Koning.

He is referring to Sultan Al-Jaber, the chief executive of Abu Dhabi National Oil who is presiding over the climate conference aimed at reducing emissions.

“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,” he went on, speaking to me days ahead of his talk at the SCI:COM conference in Dublin’s Aviva Stadium tomorrow (6 November).

“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.”

Empathy and credibility

Now in its eighth year, SCI:COM is an annual science communication conference that will explore challenges in communicating scientific research to the public.

Speakers at the event include former Irish footballer and author Richie Sadlier, director-general of Science Foundation Ireland Prof Philip Nolan and chief executive of London’s Science Media Centre Fiona Fox.

As a research student of green hydrogen production and one of Just Stop Oil’s most recognisable faces, de Koning will focus on why science communication, especially around the climate crisis, is important right now and the role language plays in influencing people.

“It’s all about making people connect emotionally. To communicate topics such as the climate crisis, you need empathy and credibility. A lot of scientists have credibility, and a lot of campaigners have empathy – we need to find the sweet spot,” he explained.

And pictures, particularly visual imagery, de Koning said, goes a long way in connecting with people.

“So instead of talking about 40 degrees Celsius heatwaves in the UK, you talk about airplanes not being able to take off because the tarmac was melting, or how in Italy it got so hot that you could leave footprints on the road, or even how a couple summers ago it was so hot in the South Pole that you could take your jumper off – that’s an insane visual image.”

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic