By Fizza Ghanchi

If you’ve been anywhere near social media this year, you’ve probably seen buildings being spray-painted neon orange or a smoke bomb confetti coming down on a grassy pitch, courtesy of Just Stop Oil. Haven’t heard of them? Just Stop Oil are an environmental action group that partake in disruptive direct action in order to pressure the UK government to end new fossil fuel licensing and production.

Greenpeace UK is another organisation leading climate resistance through direct action; they recently came under fire for scaling Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s North Yorkshire home to demonstrate on its roof.

We have had climate scientists and activists all over the world ringing the alarm on fossil fuels and how lethal their continued production can be for the planet in a future closer than anticipated.

The general public’s reception of the disruptive direct action has been very divided. Some support the protesters, but a significant number have levied the protesters with hate and vocal distate for the direct action methods used. Some of these actions have included: throwing soup on a revered painting, disrupting the ashes, spray painting the Bank of England, and ambushing former Chancellor George Osborne’s wedding.

The issue of climate change is inherently a political one, so the discomfort of a vast majority of people at the “methods” of protest is already uncalled for. However, there is the ‘why’ of the matter at hand; why do you need to disrupt a cricket match, why give a building a funky paintjob, why confront the Prime Minister in a potentially privacy-threatening way to make your point across. A large reason behind this ‘why’ is also the elephant in the room for coverage of politics in media, i.e., how news and media is owned and operated in the UK.

Across the world and in the UK many media and news organisations are owned and funded by extremely wealthy people. Some of these owners, such as Rupert Murdoch (owner of The Sun, and The Times newspapers) are not entirely convinced that climate change is real.

This means that a lot of outlets aren’t giving climate change the necessary coverage it requires and needs for people and political leaders to take it seriously. Because of this, people who want their voices heard have to take extreme measures in order to get noticed and make national news.

So many news and media outlets that exclusively produce content to undermine the necessity of climate action urgently are financially backed by owners who are heavily involved in the oil market. Direct action is non-violent but disruptive protesting that dismantles the status quo; where you previously would require unimaginable wealth or at least wealthy backers to get your agenda across, now you commit an act of social disturbance which a lot of people may find annoying.

It is interesting to acknowledge the type of rebuttals that have come against this type of protesting. After the demonstration at the National Gallery in London in October of last year, a protester from Just Stop Oil, Phoebe Plummer, faced immense online hate for their actions.

Many called it misplaced white liberal activism, and were offended over the supposed destruction of the artwork (Van Gogh’s Sunflowers), when in reality the protesters knew the artwork was behind a glass and would not be getting damaged at all. The incidents at the PM’s home and George Osborne’s wedding were additionally dubbed as breach of privacy.

On the Rishi Sunak incident, Will McCallum, co-executive director of Greenpeace UK, told the BBC: “Burying your head in the sand isn’t going to make the climate crisis go away. It’s precisely because the government has effectively shut the door to civil society groups, like Greenpeace, as well as ignoring warnings from the UN, its own advisors and the International Energy Agency, that we need to protest in the way that we do..”

All or at least a majority of the backlash to these incidents can be chalked up to enforcing the politics of respectability on the media and leaders’ part. While a good chunk of the public still doesn’t believe in the cause organisations like Just Stop Oil and Greenpeace are fighting for, a better part mostly concerns itself with what methods are being used to demonstrate and whether they fall under the generally acceptable notions of respect in society.

Forget that civil disobedience has always been about upsetting a numbered few to fight for a larger, more important issue; the protests staged for direct action on climate change are mostly consistently targeted towards people in power and organisations that are either directly issuing new fossil fuel licenses (the Prime Minister) or supporting the continued production of fossil fuels through finance or other means (Bank of England).

Even in instances where their protest is not staged at or around people it is meant for, it is still addressing those same “pillars that support and maintain” fossil fuels within the political ecosystem. The fact that those uncomfortable with the methods used in civil disobedience do not bring up the scale or impact of people in authority turning a blind eye towards the harrowing consequences of fossil fuels is neither an oversight nor unintentional criticism.

It is important to remember what’s at stake, and what UK’s role is and can be in the near future, should the leadership continue to approve fossil fuel production. Having already warmed up by 1.1c, the earth is likely to warm up to 2.7c by the end of this century, if the current climate policies in place are not reversed or adapted accordingly.

Fossil fuels are a huge reason behind that, and according to the IPCC report, blocking them should be the first thing on the agenda to slow down and combat this horrifying disaster. Since 2015 the UK has spent £20 billion more in fossil fuels than it did on renewable energy resources, one-fifth of which was to support new extraction and mining.

As one of the larger and advanced economies, the UK’s role in taking action to combat climate change cannot be overstated. As evident from several resilience movements led through civil disobedience in the past, it is vital to remember that non-violent direct action, even those deemed illegal due to draconian anti-protest laws, can be necessary to bring forward harsh truths in times like now.

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Last Update: January 15, 2024