Taking the fight for climate justice to the gantries above the M25

After a week of protest action on the M25, Green World brings together Just Stop Oil and two Green Party members, Rupert Read and Ricky Knight, for a 'public debate amongst friends'. This editorial feature was compiled by Alan Story from Sheffield.

Just Stop Oil banner on M25
Just Stop Oil banner on M25

Image credit: Just Stop Oil

Alan Story

As we work our way through unseasonably mild November days and nights – who knows, soon they may be the new normal – two climate change stories have dominated the news.

Internationally, it is the COP 27 sessions in Egypt. In the UK, it has been the direct action protests of the group Just Stop Oil.

The latest round of Just Stop Oil (JSO) protests occurred last week above the very busy M25 orbital motorway around London. For four days, audacious JSO campaigners perched on gantries high over the motorway and issued video messages by mobile phones and Twitter. From high above the M25 near Junction 8 at 7:47 a.m. on 10 November, here is a typical tweet: 

The JSO messages had one demand. They called on the Sunak government to stop issuing further licences for oil and gas drilling in the North Sea. As many as 130 such permits are expected to be granted in coming weeks.

The highly publicised JSO direct actions caused lengthy traffic snarls for four days in a row at multiple M25 locations. Many motorists were angry. And for four days, the right-wing tabloids were beside themselves with rage. The front page headlines in The Daily Mail read ‘TIME TO END ECO MOB RULE, POLICE ARE TOLD’ and ‘WHAT IS THE POINT OF THESE POLICE?’ on two successive days.

Commentators such as Piers Morgan weighed in: “If Just Stop Oil wants anyone to listen to them, let me give them some very simple advice…stop being dicks”. Other commentators, such as Media Lens, have been highly supportive of direct action tactics.

Police did make numerous arrests of activists involved in the M25 actions, bringing the total number to 678 arrests of JSO activists over the past month.           

“We are hurtling towards climate catastrophe”

Phoebe Plummer, 21, a student from London, explained why she had joined the M25 action: “As a young person, the only future I see before me is one of mass famine, severe droughts, wildfires, floods and societal collapse. I understand people must be frustrated with us, and rightly so, but we have to disrupt daily life because we are hurtling towards climate catastrophe, yet the government continues to betray me, my generation and people in the global South by issuing new oil licenses.”

Just Stop Oil banner on M25
Just Stop Oil banner on M25

The protests ended on 11 November when JSO sent out this message: “From today, Just Stop Oil will halt its campaign of civil resistance on the M25. We are giving time to those in Government who are in touch with reality to consider their responsibilities to this country at this time.”

JSO added: “We ask that the Prime Minister consider his statement at COP27, where he spoke of the catastrophic threat posed by the ravages of global heating, the 33 million people displaced by floods in Pakistan, and the moral and economic imperative to honour our pledges.”

Green Party co-leader Carla Denyer said she supported JSO’s right to protest but said that some of their “protests are not directed at the right people.”

Journalists covering JSO protest are arrested

The M25 slowdowns did trigger several related incidents, including growing efforts by the authorities not only to prevent further JSO protests but seemingly even to prevent journalists from reporting on them.

The most infamous incident occurred on 8 November when an LBC radio reporter watching the JSO protest from near the M25 was scooped up by the police, handcuffed and arrested, taken away in a police van, and held in a jail cell for five hours. Unconfirmed reports suggest as many as eight journalists with credentials were arrested.  

Meanwhile, Home Secretary Suella Braverman and Labour leader Keir Starmer were engaged in a media bidding war as to who can be tougher on environmental activists.

Unusually right in the midst of an operation, Braverman said in the middle of the last week that police on M25 patrols were failing in their duty to protect threats ‘to our way of life’ and demanded a stiffer crackdown on JSO.  

‘Fired up’ Starmer wants stiffer sentences

If Labour is elected, Starmer is reported as wanting to send directions to judges to hand out longer sentences to such protestors and he has already called for nationwide injunctions to be issued against Just Stop Oil. An opposition spokesperson last week said Starmer, a former prosecutor, was ‘fired up’ over the issue.

Interestingly it was the police themselves who had to explain to the likes of Braverman and Starmer that "we're not going to arrest our way out of an environmental crisis", as Chris Noble of the National Police Chiefs’ Council put it succinctly.

Green World thinks it important to have ‘a public debate among friends’ over actions such as those carried out last week by Just Stop Oil. So we forwarded five questions to them about their objectives and tactics. Below you will find answers from one of their spokespersons as well brief commentaries on their answers from two members of the Green Party of England and Wales.

A conversation with Just Stop Oil

1. What are the overall aims of Just Stop Oil?

Just Stop Oil has a single demand: to end new fossil fuel extraction in the UK, and to end new oil and gas. 

2. What is the objective of direct action tactics such as throwing soup at a well-known painting or tying up motorways for hours on end?

Politics has failed us. We have emitted more CO2 since the first COP was held in 1990 than in all the years that preceded it. We know that new oil and gas will seal the deal and that sees 1.5C being broken. We can look at history and see what people have done in the past when faced with a harmful state, and how they have resisted. They have broken the law, transgressed and disobeyed cultural norms. They disrupted. It might not work, but we can see that marching, letter writing, petition signing and voting have brought us to the edge of extinction.

3. Some people say that, for example, tying up the M25 highway day after day does nothing to strengthen the anti-climate change/pro-climate justice movement. How do you respond?

There is no evidence for this viewpoint. Yes, it's unpopular but it is a mistake to confuse being popular with being effective. Martin Luther King was one of the most unpopular men in the United States during the Civil Rights movement. He was accused of strengthening those opposed to civil rights for the black community, but he ultimately achieved social change.

4) Why do you feel that the allegedly ‘divisive’ or ‘radical’ techniques you have chosen are the most impactful way of getting the JSO message across?

If in 2022 our politics cannot agree to end new oil and gas, then we know that it has failed, so we must look at what has worked to achieve change before. Again, history shows us that it is resistance, people stepping up to do the right thing, to do the work, refusing to allow their freedoms and rights be taken from that is our best chance at protecting our future, at protecting the beautiful complex web of life that is our only home.

5) Have you found that the JSO membership has expanded/grown since you started implementing the most recent round of direct action actions?

Yes, our social media has expanded, our mailing list has expanded, our donations have expanded and we’ve seen a shift in commentary. It was noticeable on Question Time (on 10 November) that Caroline Lucas was supported by the audience for backing direct action, backing Just Stop Oil and the Tory MP was met with a stony silence when he condemned Just Stop Oil supporters.

Responses from two Green Party members

Rupert Read

Rupert Read

It’s too late to keep ourselves safe, but not too late to save ourselves from full-scale climate breakdown. The next big step forward in climate activism must bring the public with us. We need together to change the operating system: so it no longer resembles a conveyor belt to hell. That’s what the new moderate flank strategy aims at doing.

My challenge to critics of JSO is: don’t just seethe, but actually do something, that you judge to be better, something that actually could be more positively effective. When you do, then maybe our young people will start to feel a little less desperate.

Tactics always need to be weighed very carefully: the goodwill and patience of legislators, police and the public can be a non-renewable resource. I am glad to see JSO have suspended their actions on the M25; those seemed ill-chosen, a reprise of the serious missteps that characterised Insulate Britain.

My question to JSO itself would be: How do you see the importance of what we in the emerging moderate flank are holding: bringing the public with us. Into positive action, from the ground-up, so that the transformational impact we all strive for is achieved. 

There needs to be a truth-based response (to our predicament) which doesn’t polarise. The radical flank can’t embody it. That fact directly implies that a vibrant mass moderate flank is essential.

Dr. Rupert Read is Co-Director of the Moderate Flank Incubator, which launches on 23 Nov.  His new book, Do you want to know the truth: the surprising rewards of climate honesty, launched this week (14 November).

Ricky Knight 

Ricky Knight

I’ve just come across Roger Hallam’s eulogy of pain and exasperation, written from prison on Armistice Day. In common with possibly every member and supporter of the Green Party, I support all non-violent direct action aimed at addressing climate change, regardless of adverse reactions from the media. I’m with Caroline Lucas: “disruptive protest is the only way people feel they can make their views heard”; I concur with articulate commentators like Polly Toynbee and George Monbiot and inspirational spokespersons like Phoebe Plummer.

I’ve been cursed by activism since I joined the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (in 1951!). The effectiveness of Non Violent Direct Action was illustrated in the 1982 film ‘Gandhi’; change may be slow but sustained and imaginative actions – even if only by a tiny minority of committed activists – can bring change. The Diggers, stopping the formal slave trade, the Suffragettes, Greenham, opposing the Poll Tax, fracking, nuclear power, Plane Stupid, XR, Insulate Britain, Fridays for the Future…environmental activists have to constantly reinvent tactics and alter targets; we must never give up speaking truth to power. 

We all lapse into our echo chambers and Green World is hardly going to be a forum to denigrate the above pressure groups; we leave that to the right-wing press, Braverman, Starmer et al. To those who put their bodies and freedom on the line: all hail the heroes of Just Stop Oil!

Ricky Knight is a member of the North Devon Green Party and a long-time councillor on the Barnstaple Town Council.

A final word:  The climate justice ball is in your court. If you agree that we are facing a horrendous climate disaster but don’t support Just Stop Oil’s approach to opposing it, what tactics do you propose that can detour us away from the ‘the highway to climate hell’? 

This editorial package was put together by Alan Story of Sheffield.