31 days, 31 protests: how Just Stop Oil dominated October

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Across the month of October, the radical environmentalist group Just Stop Oil have organised a daily series of protests, one notable moment including throwing a can of soup on Van Gogh’s Sunflowers painting in the National Gallery.  

Just Stop Oil’s main goal is for the Government to call a moratorium on all new fossil fuel licenses, aiming to accelerate the transition towards a net zero economy. As recently as October, close to 900 locations in the North Sea were put to the Government in search of fossil fuel reserves. For much of the public however, it is not Just Stop Oil’s intentions that are questionable, but rather their actions. This clear dichotomy between public support for more stringent climate action and their lack of support for Just Stop Oil is especially clear in areas close to the protests, mainly across London and around the Thames Estuary, after the Dartford Crossing was closed for two hours due to a Just Stop Oil protest.

In spite of the disrepute it might provoke amongst those affected, it is Just Stop Oil’s ability to cause a reaction that has driven its success this month.

In spite of the disrepute it might provoke amongst those affected, it is Just Stop Oil’s ability to cause a reaction that has driven its success this month. In particular, the Van Gogh protest on 14 October generated sizeable press engagement, even making its way onto the front page of The New York Times the next morning. To some environmentalists, the very nature of the Van Gogh protest symbolised the destruction of natural beauty by human agents. In keeping the climate crisis a key focus of news, Just Stop Oil has been able to ask significant questions of the Government over their environmental record, which in and of itself has been dubious over the past fortnight; the decision by Rishi Sunak not to attend COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh and the later description of the conference as “just a gathering of people in Egypt” by Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey has been seen as counterproductive to UK attempts to create a net zero economy.

Just Stop Oil may be able to generate publicity and criticism of current environmental policy, but their ability to create a shift in policy is far less potent. Even when noticeable protests occur, public support for more immediate climate action remains relatively stable. As such, politicians feel far less of an impetus to act – Home Secretary Suella Braverman has decried Just Stop Oil members as “thugs and vandals”, whilst Labour leader Keir Starmer sees the group’s actions as “wrong and arrogant”.  These protests may just serve to isolate Just Stop Oil politically, preventing them from opening meaningful dialogue with institutions and parties who could move the needle on environmental policy. Most significantly, the Government seems no more likely to end fossil fuel licenses than they were at the beginning of October, seriously undermining Just Stop Oil’s integrity as a pressure group.

These protests may just serve to isolate Just Stop Oil politically, preventing them from opening meaningful dialogue with institutions and parties who could move the needle on environmental policy.

Looking ahead to future protests, Just Stop Oil may find it far more difficult to replicate the actions performed in October. The Government’s new Public Order Bill, which sets out stronger punishments such as unlimited fines and up to 12 months’ imprisonment for disruption related to “locking-on”, could pass through the House of Lords in the near future. An extension of stop-and-search police powers through the Bill, meanwhile, could allow for protestors holding items such as placards and banners to be routinely searched. Cumulatively, this is unlikely to deter groups such as Just Stop Oil, but it may limit their ability to disrupt, and certainly their ability to do so without repercussions. Consequently, many legal campaigners have highlighted how the Public Order Bill impedes on the right to protest, with activists more limited in their capacity to express their message.

When reviewing Just Stop Oil’s month of protests, it is unclear how much — if at all – it will change UK environmental policy. The group’s ability to make headlines is unequivocal, yet their lack of integrity in the eyes of both the Conservative and Labour parties blunts their ability to force a policy change. As many past protest groups have found, particularly the 2011 ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protests, not having a clear dialogue with influential institutions severely restricts any group’s ability to achieve their goals.

Image: Sky News

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