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  • Stephen Dowse

Just Stop Oil: help or hinderance?

There has been an increase in disruptive environmental protests in the UK with the arrival of groups like Just Stop Oil and Insulate Britain. These groups pursue a unique protest method, which, while technically remaining peaceful, aims to gain media and government attention by being disruptive to public life. These actions include glueing themselves to roads and throwing soup over pieces of artwork. To combat this, the government recently introduced the 2023 Public Order Act which gave the police new powers to shut down disruptive protests stating, “new measures are needed to bolster the police’s powers to respond more effectively to disruptive and dangerous protests". While agreeing with the need for an increase in environmental legislation to combat the climate crisis, I believe that disruptive protests are an ineffective method to achieve this.

First, given that according to research by IPSOS 77% of the British public have concerns regarding climate change and view it as a threat, the objective of a climate organisation should be to capitalise on these existing anxieties, by using the media attention received during protests to inspire the public to join environmental organisations and support their protests at a grassroots level. This will show the government the scale of public support for environmental legislation, forcing them to act.

Disruptive protest groups fail to do this. The media attention disruptive protests get does not make the public willing to support them as the attention they receive only reminds the public of the consequences of the protests. This was clear in November 2023, during a Just Stop Oil protest at Waterloo bridge in which their disruption prevented an ambulance carrying a patient from crossing the bridge. Rather than inspire the public, these actions cause anger, with a poll by YouGov revealing that 78% of the British public disapprove of the measures adopted by groups like Just Stop Oil and Insulate Britain. Therefore, the British public won’t be willing to support these protests, due to the consequences, leading to the movement failing to get sufficient public support for it to make a major difference.   


Secondly, the public are unwilling to support these protests due to the personal consequences of engaging in them, even before the 2023 Public Order Act. This was clearly seen during the 2023 Just Stop Oil Protest during the Chelsea Flower show in which a protestor, who worked for the parish council, was threatened with a potential job loss due to their participation in the disruptive protest. Additionally, the protestors, who glued themselves to the Last Supper Painting, would be charged with criminal damages and fined £500. The occupational and criminal consequences associated with this method of protest further prevent public engagement, leading to the movement failing to produce the necessary public support.

The additional consequences of these protest measures must also be quantified. First, when disruptive protests occur, there has to be an increased police presence, with the Metropolitan Police (“Met”) stating that it cost £20 million to police these protests by December 2023, along with 11,000 officer shifts being lost to these protests. This produces a clear opportunity cost with police time and resources, leading to a decline in the Met’s ability to respond to other criminal cases. As mentioned earlier, the disruptive measures, which include blocking roads, prevent emergency services from reaching destinations, with a fire engine being temporarily blocked by a protest in 2022. When information like this is reported in the media it damages the public perception of the protest organisation due to how it worsens public services.

Finally, this affects the larger environmental movement. Due to the high media attention that goes towards disruptive environmental protests, the public begin to believe this represents the majority of environmental protest groups. Therefore, the public perception shifts to see environmental groups overall as aggressive, disruptive, and not an organisation someone would want to be affiliated with. This produces a situation where the public are less willing to support any environmental group, even if they’re non-disruptive, which removes the ability of the wider environmental movement to gain sufficient support to press the government for environment-friendly legislation.

To conclude, groups like Just Stop Oil have failed to capitalise on anxieties regarding climate change which are currently at an all-time high. Disruptive protests have only reduced the public’s willingness to engage with the environmental movement so there is no effective protest bloc to place pressure on the government to produce more environment-friendly legislation. In the context of the 2023 Public Order Act, it may be argued this could benefit the environmental movement by encouraging non-disruptive protests which better mobilise the public and therefore will gain the numbers to effectively press the government for more environment-friendly legislation.

Image: Flickr / Alisdare Hickson 



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