Image provided by Just Stop Oil

How often is global warming a headline in our national newspapers? Are we allowing the climate emergency to be put to the back of our minds? A recent Ipsos ‘What Worries the World’ survey found that, although global warming is still considered important, economic concerns have been growing as a priority, while all around the world environmental concerns are not the human race’s greatest worry. The climate emergency is not being ignored, as it once was, but it is it not a subject that is dominating our thoughts. Inflation is the top global worry, then poverty and social inequality, crime and violence, unemployment, financial and political corruption. Climate change came joint seventh in the survey, beside worry about taxation. Only 16% chose it as a concern.

Oil companies are doubling or more than doubling their profits. Shell has recently announced its 2022 annual profits which, at £32.2 billion, were the highest in 115 years. BP’s profits in 2022 were £23 billion. These are businesses which have profited from the war in Ukraine, claiming it has caused global energy prices to soar. Meanwhile people are suffering and dying because they can’t afford to heat their homes. We need to phase out reliance on fossil fuels if we are to protect the planet from global warming, but shareholders will be up in arms if this ever happens, and most governments around the world are taking almost no steps towards introducing essential changes. 

We raise our voices against these obscene profits and the exploitation of many people who are suffering and struggling to pay their bills and we need to continue to do so. People have frequently spoken out about these desperate inequalities and have urged their governments to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, but some activists have gone much further and taken part in direct action at considerable personal risk. Their protests have led to headlines in many mass media (MSM) outlets. MSM has generally been antagonistic to the protesters but, even so, the protesters’ actions are raising awareness and gaining support. 

Since the Just Stop Oil campaign was launched just over a year ago in the UK, there have been over 2,000 arrests and 138 people have spent time in prison; many of these peaceful protestors have been held without trial. At the time of writing there were two Just Stop Oil supporters and one Insulate Britain supporter still in prison, awaiting trial or serving a sentence.

Judges prevent the whole truth being told

Our justice system is not fit for purpose. It is riddled with inconsistency and ambiguity. If you are arrested and charged for causing a public nuisance you are at risk of being sentenced to life imprisonment. You are required to “tell the whole truth” in court, you take an oath or make an affirmation to that effect, but there have been cases where judges have instructed defendants who have been involved in climate protests not to refer to climate change as part of their defence in court. 

One young activist received an eight-week prison sentence early last month for contempt of court after the judge instructed the defendants not to refer to climate change as a motivation for their actions. However, during his closing speech, David Nixon decided to make a statement: “You’ve not been able to hear these truths because this court has not allowed me to say them. Our safety is at risk, our society is at risk.” He refused to apologise for defying the court and continued to justify his statement: “Ultimately I’m trying to keep people safe“. Nixon was told that he was disrespecting the court and the court process. Insulate Britain declared: “The British legal system no longer has legitimacy in our eyes”. Judges are now trying to prevent defendants from telling the whole truth and have locked up some peaceful campaigners who are trying to save our planet by revealing the truth about the climate emergency.

Some of the activists are young people who risk their futures if they are handed a criminal record. Not all judges take the same view and juries are often not impressed by judges telling them what is a legal defence. Two Just Stop Oil protesters in their early twenties glued a version of Constable’s ‘The Hay Wain’ over the original last July and glued their hands to the frame. Although they were found guilty of aggravated trespass and criminal damage in December, and the Crown Prosecution Service argued for a prison sentence, the judge decided to fine them £850, and the two young people were free to leave the court.

Also in December, three activists from Insulate Britain were found not guilty of causing a public nuisance when they organised a roadblock on Bishopsgate in October 2021. The judge in that case told the jury that there was no legal defence which could be based on the climate crisis, fuel poverty or insulation, but the members of the jury made up their own minds. Four more activists from Insulate Britain, their ages ranging from 25 to 80, were in court with the same judge presiding and giving the same ruling, but again the jury delivered a not guilty verdict. In January, seven Just Stop Oil activists were found not guilty in London. The judge decided that their campaign against new fossil fuel licences, blocking a road in London on 30th October 2022, was a proportionate form of disruptive protest, using the Ziegler precedent.

On March 3rd four Just Stop Oil protestors were acquitted of obstructing the highway. The Crown Prosecution failed to produce evidence against them. Surely this was a pointless trial, wasting time and money and attempting to turn people who are fighting for the planet into criminals? One of the defendants stated: “To NOT take action would be condoning this Government’s plan to continue the destruction of life on Earth. It would be indifference to the greatest crime ever.”

Last week five Just Stop Oil Supporters were found guilty of disrupting key roads in London, while four others were acquitted of wilful obstruction of the highway. They were demanding that the Government put a stop to licensing and consents for any new fossil-fuel projects in the UK. Also last week nine supporters were found guilty at Chelmsford Magistrates Court after causing disruption to the flow of oil out of the largest fuel terminal in the country in 2022. They were charged with aggravated trespass and wilful obstruction of the highway. They were given a range of fines, court costs and fees to pay and two were given community orders.

Very recently there is an unconfirmed rumour that a growing number of barristers and other legal professionals are signing up to a pledge to refuse to prosecute climate protest cases. One supporter of Just Stop Oil commented, “When the legal people stand with us it sends such a shudder through the judiciary, through 55 Tufton Street* landing straight into Number 10”. Just Stop Oil is urging the judiciary to rethink its approach: “The judiciary also needs to step up and recognise that the law as it is cannot respond to the climate catastrophe and trying to enforce the law on those seeking to stop the harm is itself a crime against humanity.”

*55 Tufton street is home to fossil fuel lobby groups and right-wing think tanks

How effective is direct action?

An article by Mallika Talwar in February 2022, published in the Yale Environment Review, discussed a study by Dylan Bugden in 2020 which dealt with the different possible reactions to the type of climate protests carried out by organisations such as Extinction Rebellion, Fridays for Future, Just Stop Oil and Insulate Britain. The study considers the argument that their actions might alienate public opinion, but found that this was not the case. It also analyses the impact of three different types of climate action protests: peaceful marches, civil disobedience and violent protests. Protests increase the level of public support, the important methods being peaceful marches and civil disobedience, with the latter generating more media interest.

The original article concludes: “Instead of further alienating both bystanders and opponents of climate action, these tactics can be highly effective at shifting public opinion, even among previously unsupportive audiences. These tactics … will be an important strategy for activists as they continue to build public and political will for climate action.”

Peaceful protest and civil disobedience clearly work together in making an impact on public opinion and raise awareness of the parlous situation of our planet. It is imperative that increasing numbers of people endorse the actions of these committed activists. We can do this by joining them in their protests, donating to their funds, writing to those who have been imprisoned, putting pressure on local and national politicians and on the heartless corporations who put profits above everything else, and contacting the media to try to redress the balance of their biased reporting. The climate emergency should be a priority for us all, and hard work, the readiness to take risks, and commitment are needed to prevent untold suffering and the extinction of all forms of life on earth.

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