Mika Baumesiter via unsplash

We need ‘extreme’ environmentalism

By Martha Lewis-Fairbrother

Environmental activists are dubbed by right-wing media as ‘extreme’ – as governments fail the planet, we should encourage this ‘extreme’ activism

The risks associated with climate change are undeniable. According to the UN’s ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ report from 2023 emissions need to be cut by almost half before 2030. 

The UK Government has promised to reduce state funding of fossil fuel projects abroad, a somewhat lukewarm step in the right direction. And yet, the UK’s finance industry continues to fund such projects almost unimpeded, creating 1.8 times more emissions than the whole of the UK. The Scottish Government has committed to achieving net zero emissions by 2045, however the Climate Change Committee reports that the Scottish government consistently miss targets relating to their 2020 Climate Change Plan. 

With our politicians willing to acknowledge the need for action, but failing to implement meaningful change, the onus falls on individual experts and protest/charity organisations to continue drawing attention to the issue and maintain the sense of urgency the situation warrants. As Just Stop Oil say ‘Our Government doesn’t give a fuck about its responsibilities. […] We refuse to comply with a system which is killing millions around the world.’

The actions of Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion have been dubbed by some as extreme. Acts of protest which have garnered the most media attention include Just Stop Oil activists who threw soup at famous works of art, most notably Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’, Insulate Britain blocking the M25 in 2021, and XR members who smashed the windows of News UK, superglued themselves to Buckingham Palace, and blocked traffic around the country. This kind of action has received a lot of negative publicity. Extinction Rebellion announced in January that they were shifting away from disruptive acts of protest due to a YouGov poll, which suggested that their actions were disliked more than they were liked. 

But is the aim of such protesting to win public opinion? As Emma Brown, a spokesperson for Just Stop Oil, said in an interview with the BBC in 2022 ‘civil resistance has proven to be the last best hope.’ On PBS she stated “[the] outrage that people feel is justified. It is shocking what we’re doing. If we take action that people can ignore, you know, so if we stood in a park somewhere with some placards, and people didn’t know about it, it didn’t disturb them, they didn’t even hear about it, that would be a completely ineffective form of protest.” 

The aim of such protesting is to force news media to keep discussing climate change, to ensure it goes viral, and to keep people talking about it. In the UK, the fact that global warming is an existential threat is difficult to publicly deny. Pressure on governments to keep to commitments is almost the only tool left in the activist’s arsenal. 

Just Stop Oil has announced a new plan for this summer: ‘a campaign of high-level actions at sites of key importance to the fossil fuel industry – airports.’ The action they plan to take is described on their website as ‘nonviolent civil resistance’. 

However, this has not stopped the UK’s right-wing media from referring to the planned action as a ‘plan to storm airports’ by the ‘eco mob’. Earlier this year, Michael Forst, the UN Special Rapporteur on Environmental Defenders, warned that environmental activists in the UK face an “increasingly severe crackdown” in relation to the anti-protest powers granted to police in 2023. 

The portrayal of activists as extremists plays into the hands of a government who prioritise pushing through commissions to major oil drilling projects such as the Cambo Oil Field and Rosebank. The UK Government is the second largest oil and gas producer in Europe despite the fact that the burning of oil and gas along with coal is responsible for 80% of carbon emissions.

Acts of protest by environmental organisations which cannot be ignored are an essential part of the fight against climate change. Drawing attention to climate change and keeping it in public discourse is one of the few ways we can hope to keep the government accountable. 


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