The latest front in the culture wars is a party-political contest to see who can come up with the strictest denunciation of Just Stop Oil. In a campaign email last Wednesday, Rishi Sunak denounced the environmental activist group as “a paint-wielding or road-blocking, noisy minority”, “eco-zealots” and “eco-fanatics”.
Not to be outdone, Keir Starmer told Times Radio on Thursday: “I can’t wait for them to stop their antics, frankly… I absolutely condemn the way they go about their tactics. And I have to say it’s riddled with an arrogance that only they have the sort of right to force their argument on other people in this way”.
It was further reported in the Sunday Times that the Labour leader had informed the Shadow Cabinet:
“I hate tree huggers”. So there.
You can see why, as the general election draws closer, the PM and his Labour opponent are banging this particular drum; for the more-or-less orthodox position on Just Stop Oil has been to say that, however worthy the group’s intentions, its tactics are counterproductive, gestural, performative, unserious. If they want to end new fossil fuel licensing and production, they should pursue the usual channels of democratic change and policy formation.
Someone of my generation, a supporter of the liberal, rules-based order, might be expected to join in this scolding chorus. Yet something makes me recoil from doing so. The words turn to ash in my mouth. They feel unearned and, to be honest, a bit shabby.
Ask, first, why Just Stop Oil is doing what it is doing. Its activists know perfectly well that the disruption of Wimbledon, or the Chelsea Flower Show, or the Ashes, is extremely irritating. But they are not seeking popularity. They are drilling for the most precious resource of the 21st century: public attention.
They do so because, quite correctly, they see that, in the past 30 years, the usual channels of conventional democracy and intergovernmental diplomacy have failed spectacularly. In 1990, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its first, profoundly disturbing assessment; two years later, the Earth Summit was hosted by Rio de Janeiro.
For more than three decades, we have observed nation-states quibbling as the planet burns, and a feeble effort to delegate responsibility to personal consumers (buy electric cars, recycle, hope for the best) and to businesses complying with the corporate cult of ESG (environmental, social and governance).
I spoke recently to one of the international sherpas for Cop28 in Dubai. Unprompted, they conceded that there “hasn’t been a meaningful Cop since Paris in 2015”. It was in the French capital, eight years ago, that nations agreed to ensure that global temperatures rose by no more than 2C above pre-industrial levels, while “pursuing efforts” to limit the increase to 1.5C.
In May, the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) assessed that the 1.5C threshold is likely to be broken before 2027. Though this breach may be temporary, the direction of travel remains appallingly clear. On present trends, we are on course for at least a 2.7C increase by 2100 – perhaps as high as 4C.
If you think a brief interruption to the snooker match you are watching is irksome, how about watching your children and grandchildren suffer from heat-induced heart disease? Or struggling with shortages of food and fresh water? Or wondering how a world in which floods, droughts, storms and heatwaves are routine, is supposed to help one billion climate refugees?
To be clear: I claim absolutely no virtue, personal or generational, in all this. Quite the opposite: the disgraceful state of play is the fault of the Boomers and Gen X. As David Wallace-Wells shows in The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future (2019), more than half of the carbon released into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels has been emitted in the past three decades; or, to put it another way: “The majority of the burning has come since the premiere of Seinfeld”.
This is the most shaming charge of all: that the bulk of the damage has been done since the scale of the problem was identified. Scientific knowledge has not shifted our apocalyptic trajectory.
We would rather cling to our delusions, persist in our complacency, and hang on to our creature comforts than take radical action now to protect the lives of future generations.
In A Theory of Justice (1971), the philosopher John Rawls defined civil disobedience as “a public, nonviolent, conscientious yet political act contrary to law usually done with the aim of bringing about a change in the law or policies of the government”.
It is hard to think of a contemporary context in which action of this sort has been more obviously justified, perhaps required.
In this respect, Just Stop Oil are emulating the example of Henry David Thoreau, author of the defining tract, Civil Disobedience (1849); of the Suffragettes, of Gandhi, of Martin Luther King Jr and of the ACT UP coalition to end the Aids pandemic.
Do you imagine these movements were warmly welcomed at the time? Their purpose was to administer a jolt to the system, to sound the alarm; to hurl a bucket of ice-cold water on to the face of society and cry out: what will it take to make you wake up?
Just Stop Oil are not virtue signallers; they are desperation signallers. Already, there is research showing that the actions of such climate campaigners raise hackles but also raise awareness. Their gamble is that what they are doing will prove tactically risky but strategically successful.
There are times when alarmism is justified. Cassandras they may be – but never forget that Cassandra was speaking the truth. Their chastening message is: “What would you have us do? Since you, our elders, will not take seriously your custody of the planet and our future?”
It’s a good question, and I hear no answer to it in the sneering condemnations of politicians. And that, of course, is because they don’t have one. Just Stop Oil are right.