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Just Stop Oil: help or hindrance?

The recent protest outside the Radcliffe Camera is just one in a series of demonstrations staged by Just Stop Oil to draw attention to increasing global temperatures and the catastrophic effects of climate change. As well as painting the Radcliffe camera orange, previous protests have included shutting down the M25, interrupting play at Wimbledon and throwing soup at van Gogh’s Sunflowers at the National Gallery –  to name only a few. As temperatures continue to rise whereas governments continue to delay climate action, we are once again compelled to question whether Just Stop Oil’s actions are proactive, or simply disrespectful towards the general public?

It is widely agreed that the Earth is warming at an unprecedented rate, with global surface temperatures having increased faster since 1970 than in any other 50 year period over the last 2000 years (UN). The IPCC states that there is ‘unequivocal’ evidence that humans are the cause behind this warming and that only immediate action can secure a liveable future. The UK government, on the other hand, announced recently that it would be awarding 27 new oil and gas exploration licences in the North Sea in an attempt to ensure the UK’s energy security and reduce our need for imported energy.  Even in light of this political climate, the actions of climate activists, such as those involved in JSO, remain highly controversial amongst both Oxford University students and the wider public.

Interestingly, research shows that there is a stark contradiction between the opinion of the public and media over the use of disruptive protests and the opinion of academics. Polling by YouGov in February demonstrated that up to 78% of Britons believe that such disruptive protests hinder activists’ causes. Meanwhile, new research conducted by the Apollo surveys on behalf of the Social Change Lab showed that nearly seven out of ten academics surveyed considered these tactics to be ‘at least quite important’ to the success of a movement, ranking it as more important than media coverage or strictly avoiding violent tactics. 

One particular reason for this contrast is suggested by survey respondent Louisa Parks, associate professor of sociology at the University of Trento, Italy- who outlined how disruptive protests are prone to causing immediate public and political backlash but generally have a more positive impact in the long-term, stating that ‘broader cultural changes could be provoked despite short-term backfire effects’. This links to the idea of the so-called ‘radical flank’ effect within a social movement –  when radical tactics are seen to increase support for a moderate faction within the same movement. Indeed, it could be argued that despite the initial public outrage following the vandalisation of the Radcliffe Camera, it has sparked more widespread debate surrounding Oxford University’s own climate policies –  including its connections with recruitment into fossil fuel companies. 

This is in no way a new concept- even after the extremely controversial ‘Insulate Britain’ campaign in 2021, mentions of housing insulation in the British press more than doubled. There are now calls for a ‘wartime effort’ on insulation coming from a cross-parliamentary committee.

Despite this, much of the student body remains unconvinced following JSO’s vandalism of the Radcliffe Camera, with one student from Jesus College stating that this type of protest risks ‘turning the public against a valid cause’. Part of the issue encountered by JSO activists in gaining widespread support is that many think that their demonstrations target hardworking, innocent people. Moreover, some may argue that targeting socially and culturally significant buildings such as the Radcliffe Camera or artwork such as van Gogh’s Sunflowers could be considered deeply inappropriate and immoral.

However, whilst such acts of vandalism may seem completely outrageous and disproportionate, one must consider the cause of these protests and the extent of the climate breakdown that we may soon be facing. An important distinction to bear in mind, especially when considering the current actions of the UK government and the proposed construction of new oil fields such as Rosebank, is that the extent of the global temperature increase relies not on how fast we are able to reach net zero but upon exactly how much greenhouse gas we have emitted into the atmosphere within this timescale. The severity of the issue is best understood when one considers the analysis conducted by the Global Carbon Project, who highlight how, if we are to have even a 50% chance of limiting warming to 1.5°C, our remaining carbon budget (the amount of carbon we can release into the atmosphere) is equivalent to only 380 Gigatonnes of CO2. This may seem like a large amount, but is in fact only equivalent to nine more years of emission at 2022 levels before we have less than a 50% chance of meeting the 1.5 ° C target set by the Paris Agreement. 

These statistics are striking and provide only limited insight into the current state of the global climate system. If, as is looking increasingly likely, we overshoot this target, the situation is likely to look far worse – a warming of 4°C above pre industrial levels could result in unprecedented heat waves, severe drought, and major floods in a number of regions. This would have considerable impacts on human systems and ecosystems, and likely result in a considerable loss of life. 

Therefore, when one considers the possible devastating impacts of such extreme climate change, acts of protest such as vandalising the Radcliffe Camera suddenly seem infinitely less problematic. One might even argue that such acts of protest are not only justified, but absolutely necessary in order to reflect the current gravity of the climate emergency. Even though their tactics are often initially frowned upon by the general public, I argue that the acts of groups such as JSO seem to play a unique part in motivating governments, universities and corporations to take real climate action.

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