“Climate activists are sometimes depicted as dangerous radicals. But the truly dangerous radicals are the countries that are increasing the production of fossil fuels. Investing in new fossil fuels is moral and economic madness”

(Antonio Guterres, August 2023)

Just Stop Oil’s Slow Marching campaign recommenced on Sunday 29th October. I shall be supporting them financially, and have agreed to speak out on their behalf, and to advocate for their campaign objectives.

JSO’s uncompromising position is wholly justified – morally and politically. Its central objective is crystal clear – and not even particularly radical: “that the UK Government makes a statement that it will immediately halt all future licensing and consent for the exploration, development and production of fossil fuels in the UK.”

As well as the Green Party, it’s a position supported by the Labour Party and the Lib Dems. It is position supported by an extraordinary diversity of people and organisations – from the Pope to the International Energy Agency, from the UK’s Committee on Climate Change to Greta Thunberg and UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, as well as the vast majority of climate scientists.

Unfortunately, the current UK Government has chosen to ignore all that, and has simultaneously trashed the UK’s reputation as a leader (relatively speaking) on climate change by doubling down on new oil, gas and coal investments. Rishi Sunak recently took great pleasure in rolling back critical elements in the Government’s own Net Zero Plan.

The contempt both for science and the interests of young people today literally beggars belief.

Whatever tomorrow’s climate historians come to conclude about 2023, it will certainly be judged as the most disturbing year to date as regards the frequency and intensity of “extreme anomalies”, with countless records broken, “unprecedented regime shifts”, and certain tipping points (particularly the loss of sea ice in Antarctica and huge increases in ocean surface temperatures) looming ever larger.

This is not the place to itemise all those different tipping points – other than to comment on the change of tone in the language used by scientists as they try to convey just how close to the edge we now are. “Disbelief”, “downright terror”, “consternation”, “near panic”, “gut churning fear”, “deep, deep sadness” – all these were in the mix. Zeke Hausfather recently described the extreme anomaly of ocean surface temperatures as “gobsmackingly bananas”.

That’s what the science tells us today. And you might think, after a decade of ever-worsening climate impacts, that we would have at least started to get a grip on changing course. Sadly not.

Emissions of greenhouse gases increased in 2022, and there’s little sign that they will start going down in 2023. The International Energy Agency has reported that the demand for oil hit a record 103 million barrels a day in June. It’s almost certain that 2023 will be declared as the warmest year ever.

In a way that still astonishes me, on an almost daily basis, all this would appear to be having a net zero impact on today’s political leaders.

Indeed, Sunak’s Government has chosen to go to war with today’s climate campaigners, aggressively asserting its right to “squeeze every last drop of oil out of the North Sea”, and continues to “go slow” as regards investing in all those critical technologies on which a future decarbonised economy depends – despite endless petitioning from the business community for the Government to get its act together. Ministers lie through their teeth on an almost daily basis, bolstered by the UK’s predominantly right-wing media and, sadly, by the craven cowardice of the BBC in not taking them on.

On September 20th, the Prime Minister doubled down on his own particular brand of “green scepticism” by announcing a suite of decisions to roll back on the Government’s Net Zero agenda, all notionally in the interest of “hard-working families” struggling with the cost-of-living crisis – for which, ironically, his own Government is largely responsible. With a degree of calculating cruelty, these decisions included an indefinite delay to measures (first introduced by David Cameron 12 years ago!) mandating landlords to improve energy efficiency for all rented properties by 2025. I describe this as “cruel” simply because 25% of private renters already live in fuel poverty, and many already pay far more for their gas and electricity than homeowners. And can do nothing about it themselves.

At the same time, the UK Government has done more than any other in the Western world to put an end to direct-action campaigning by organisations such as Just Stop Oil, XR and Greenpeace. The 2022 Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act gave the police incredibly vague powers to crack down on any protest on the suspicion that it might be disruptive. The 2023 Public Order Act created a new offence of “intentionally or recklessly causing public nuisance”, setting stiff penalties for campaigners chaining themselves to anything, supergluing themselves to roads, or “interfering with key national infrastructure”. Subsequent amendments to the 1986 Public Order Act (ruthlessly rammed through Parliament) gave the police even more powers to impose conditions on any planned protests which they believe “may cause more than minor disruption” (no longer even “serious disruption”).

In effect, the UK has been turned into a police state right in front of our noses. To add insult to industry, defendants on trial can be deprived of the right to explain themselves to a jury in court. Trudi Warner faces a possible jail sentence for her protest outside the Inner London Crown Court reminding jurors of their “absolute right to acquit a defendant according to your conscience”.

Against that backdrop, it would be surprising if the oil and gas sector did anything other than prioritise the short-term interest of their shareholders over the long-term future of life on Earth.

From 2015 (the date of the Paris agreement) to 2022, oil and gas companies invested an astonishing $4.8 trillion in different kinds of energy – a mere $100 billion of which was in low-carbon technologies. This year’s Oil and Gas Benchmark Report (published annually by the World Benchmarking Alliance and the Climate Disclosure Project (CDP)) concluded that the sector had made next to zero progress in moving towards the Paris goals of 2015.

Worse yet, many of the world’s biggest oil and gas companies (benefiting from record profits on account of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine) are even now intensifying their search for new oil and gas reserves, confident in their estimates that today’s politicians will do nothing to prevent them from “drilling deep” for as long as they can get away with it.

The Executives and Board Directors of these companies are all out-and-out climate criminals. We have to hope that one day they will be tried and dealt with as harshly possible for their criminality, immorality and personal venality.

But such corporate criminality only thrives because governments condone it – indeed, enthusiastically promote it. According to the International Monetary Fund: “globally, fossil fuel subsidies were $5.9 trillion (or 6.8% of GDP) in 2020, and are expected to increase to 7.4% of GDP in 2025”. That’s roughly £10 million every minute of every day. According to the International Institute for Sustainable Development, subsidies paid out by G20 governments reached a record £1.1 trillion in 2022.

Most of that huge sum represents the fact that fossil fuel companies are not paying for the massive damage they’re doing to the environment, to the climate, and to people’s health through chronic air pollution. The rest is reflected in governments subsidising the price of oil, gas and coal for consumers, and in direct subsidies to the fossil fuel companies themselves. A 2022 report from the B Team and Business for Nature (“Financing our Survival”) assessed those direct subsidies to fossil fuel companies at $640 billion a year.

Unfortunately, the Labour Party offers JSO campaigners limited hope of being much of an improvement when it comes to phasing out fossil fuels as fast as possible. Indeed, its position is deeply compromised: if/when it’s in power, it will not issue any new licenses, but nor will it cancel licenses that have already been granted by this Conservative Government. That is gesture politics at its worst: with 100 new North Sea licenses already confirmed by Rishi Sunak, and a license for the massive Rosebank field, there’s literally not one drop more to be squeezed out of the North Sea anyway.

World-weary climate campaigners may see all this as yet more chronic failures on the part of our increasingly dysfunctional political system. But try seeing all this through the eyes of young people today:

  • You’ve followed the science – and see no reason not to believe what the vast majority of scientists are saying about the Climate Emergency. You’ve listened to the warnings of those you trust, from Greta Thunberg to Antonio Guterres, Secretary General of the UN.
  • You’ve worked out what your generation’s future looks like, impacted more and more dramatically by climate disasters through to 2050 and beyond. The actions of Big Oil systematically kill off whatever hope you might have of a better world – and the part that you might play in it.
  • In the face of all that, you’ve decided the Government’s response is not just hopelessly inadequate, but totally immoral, dishonest and callous.
  • So you’ve decided you don’t want to be a ‘bystander’ by accepting as ‘normal’ the kind of suicidal disconnect from the science that has been going on for decades. You’ve decided that you want to take action, even if that means you’re putting your own personal liberty on the line, risking increasingly severe sanctions at the hands of an increasingly authoritarian Government.

How much cognitive dissonance is it reasonable to expect young people to live with? It’s pretty horrendous coping with all this at the age of 73, but it’s all but impossible for me to imagine how I would be dealing with it, psychologically, if I was still looking ahead to a long life ahead of me. I don’t think there’s any doubt that I would be joining with colleagues, of my own age, to take direct action – for many reasons, but primarily to keep despair at bay through taking that action.

This is so shameful. It’s on my generation’s watch that this “theft of young people’s future” has happened. Where once we had some (albeit limited) claim to leadership in addressing the Climate Emergency, the UK is now numbered in the worst category of recidivist fossil fuel addicts, incapable of recognising that it’s simply not possible to keep a foot in both camps: you either “get clean”, free of fossil fuels, or wilfully double down on the collective suicide pact to which so many politicians are still signatories.

I’m pretty sure most reasonable people today would go along with this kind of analysis – albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm. But that’s where the debate about tactics kicks in.

JSO initially focused its actions on oil and gas installations, but this got harder and harder as the injunctions multiplied and the full force of the law became more and more draconian. As well as which, its current tactics (including both high profile protests at sporting events and art galleries, as well as its Slow Marches) have certainly succeeded in getting far more media attention.

The basic idea is to oblige people “to pick a side”, deliberately making it harder and harder for them to “stay neutral”. I’m so with them on this: neutrality today amounts either to wilful complicity or intellectual laziness. If nothing else, JSO makes us confront our failures, our own potential complacency or indifference. It denies us the consolation of taking refuge in our perceived helplessness. JSO urges us not to worry about courting unpopularity (as campaigner Louise Harris put it: “you might hate me for doing this, and you’re entitled to hate me”), but to dig down into our own conscience to examine the deeper moral issues entailed in today’s continuing ecocidal economy.

Having said that, I do find myself asking if it really makes sense to continue with tactics which almost certainly alienate more people than they win over, handing our right-wing media limitless opportunities to attack not just the tactics of JSO but the cause itself? I’d love them to focus more on the oil and gas companies themselves, their investors and insurers (who I believe to be as criminal as the companies themselves), their suppliers, professional advisers and so on or all those who still take their money as sponsors. But I know just how hard this has now become under today’s oppressive legal sanctions.

In all honesty, I have no idea if Just Stop Oil will be able to carry on campaigning in the way it does today. It could just turn out to be another “massively disruptive flash in the pan”. That would be sad – but not game-changing. There will always be another way of giving voice to the kind of crystal-clear logic that inform JSO’s work, another way of converting that logic into courageous deeds. The cause of intergenerational justice is going to become more and more important as the disregard for the lives of young people today, and for all future generations, becomes ever more immoral. And this, I believe, will become the single most important test of my own generation.

So that’s how I see my role now – providing intergenerational support to young people in whatever way might be genuinely useful – although I have no idea at the moment what that might look like in practice over the next few months.


Jonathon Porritt

(November 2023)