Creative action needed on climate emergency

An Extinction Rebellion blockade of the ExxonMobil Yarraville fuel terminal in Australia (photo: Matt Hrkac (CC BY 2.0))

Tim Root says we need well-chosen targets, and why some direct action can be counter-productive

In late August, nearly half of Europe was suffering a drought, forest fires had destroyed an area four-and-a-half times larger than the average over the previous 19 years, and crop yields were set to fall substantially. Most people are facing a cost-of-living crisis arising largely because investors and governments have failed woefully to provide potentially abundant, cheap, clean energy. Campaigners need to highlight that the climate emergency threatens us all, and, therefore, we should aim to win the support of the widest possible cross-section of society.

Learn how to inspire

In June 1963, President Kennedy responded to a recent victory of the civil rights movement, led by Martin Luther King, announcing that he would ask Congress to pass civil rights legislation, saying in a televised address to the US people: “The events in Birmingham and elsewhere have so increased the cries for equality that no city or state or legislative body can prudently choose to ignore them.”

This shows us that we should urgently learn from the unifying ambition of the civil rights movement, as demonstrated in King’s 1963 “I have a dream” speech, in which he said: “[M]any of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realise that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realise that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.”

Just as King’s vision of multi-racial support for civil rights was not limited to the victims of racial discrimination, so we can aim for a movement which includes the many who are not yet climate action advocates alongside existing green activists. King’s speech became iconic because it gave hope of a positive future for all and drew on historic words expressing democratic and religious values revered by nearly all Americans. His inspiration strengthened the movement, which has achieved a vast increase in elected ethnic minority legislators since 1963 and a substantial fall in the proportion of Black people living in poverty. Climate campaigners must learn from King and rise high above statistics and scientific complexity to connect with far more people than previously, at a visceral level. This entails emphasising, in a similar way to King, the security that climate breakdown shows people from all echelons of society need and the solutions we know can provide it. Campaigns should prominently involve health experts, who command considerable public trust and therefore can make these points very effectively.

Some may consider it unrealistic to aspire to achieve an impact comparable to King’s. However, all humanity faces the biggest imaginable threat, which highlights the callous indifference of the powers which dominate our societies. Therefore, this should stimulate the passion and determination enabling our movement to rise to the level which the civil rights movement achieved.

Winning public support

Can Just Stop Oil achieve this? They plan to “occupy Westminster” on an indefinite basis from 1st October. This is based on their dubious contention that “Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain have demonstrated that civil disobedience works”. They need to bear in mind that governments yield to protesters, particularly relatively unpopular ones, only when they believe they have a lot to lose otherwise. This depends to a large degree on the level of support for the protesters’ demands. Just a week after the mid-August heatwave – which triggered wildfires – when a poll asked people to name the three “most important issues facing the country at this time”, only 31% named the environment, the category which includes climate. By contrast, 71% named the economy, and 41% health. This figure for the environment was significantly less than the figure in August and November 2021. Moreover, governments consider whether the protesters’ action is likely to be sustained, and judge that a generally unpopular action by an organisation which commands rather little public sympathy is unlikely to be sustained at a problematic level for very long. This process is amplified when media coverage of campaigners causing disruption focuses more on the disruption than on the cause campaigners are trying to highlight, as has happened with Extinction Rebellion (XR) and Insulate Britain.

Just Stop Oil need to remember XR’s unpopularity; a year ago, it was near the bottom of a YouGov ranking of British charities and organisations, with only 19% support, slightly ahead of the English Defence League. A poll last October asked whether Insulate Britain’s action “helps or hinders” “the climate change movement”. Three-quarters said it hinders, while only 5% said it helps. The Daily Mirror’s balanced report of a Just Stop Oil action in early August mentioned that policing XR protests had cost more than £50m in the previous two years. It also included a quote that we rely on lorries to deliver goods “to homes, workplaces, schools, hospitals”. In a recent interview with George Monbiot, the interviewer pointed out that due to XR actions people had been “unable to get to funerals, ambulances unable to respond to emergency call-outs“. Direct action needs to be wisely targeted at activities which directly cause major climate damage, otherwise inconveniencing people – many of whom are undertaking urgent tasks for reasons everyone would regard as important – loses us considerable public support. The recent article by five scientists suggesting that scientists’ involvement in civil disobedience could be particularly effective does not address the effectiveness of the targeting of such action. However, it does state that “the credibility of scientists is influenced by whether they are seen to be acting in line with shared values and promoting the well-being of others and, in the context of climate change, according to whether their actions clearly align with their message”.

The study they cite showing that civil disobedience increases movements’ likelihood of success is an analysis of many campaigns, each against specific fossil fuel projects in a certain place. Therefore, it is highly likely that the civil disobedience was targeted at specific locations linked to the project concerned. 

The authors of the excellent book This is an Uprising emphasise that civil disobedience can cause a “backlash that can reinforce status quo injustices”, and that activists “must carefully cultivate” public sympathy. Research showing that “images depicting protests can attract cynicism as many people do not feel an affinity with protesters” indicates that the media images of Just Stop Oil’s occupation will make it harder for us to gain the sympathy we need from potential supporters.     

We should also bear in mind that those likely to oppose us, people similar to the Ottawa occupiers, could also turn to direct action, thus in many people’s minds bringing our cause into disrepute alongside theirs.

We also need to think very carefully about our messaging. To make the urgent progress required, we need a much wider swathe of civil society involved. This is achievable; the proportion of those saying they are “very worried” about climate change is 32% in the USA, 46% in France, 35% in Germany, and 58% in India. In the same interview, George Monbiot said that reaching “25% of the population” enables a movement to get to “a tipping point” at which “things will change very quickly”. But however much we may wish it, 25% of the population will not react positively to demands for “system change”. Research a few years ago in the five most populous Western European nations found that those who think of themselves as right-wing comfortably outnumber self-described left-wingers in four of these nations, while self-described centrists outnumber left-wingers in each nation. These ratings are unlikely to have changed much since then. Many people would see “system change” either as unrealistic or dangerously destabilising, while for others, its meaning would be unclear and fail to engage them emotionally. As we face the biggest challenge imaginable – for the viability of life on Earth – proposing an additional massive and controversial challenge will damage the confidence of those who might otherwise wish to help us. In addition, calling for “climate justice” turns off a significant proportion of potential supporters, as it unfortunately suggests to many people that we represent only an ideological minority.

Choosing tactics which can succeed

Of course, I share Just Stop Oil’s ultimate aim to cease fossil fuel use and acknowledge their commitment. Their choice of action is in large part due to recognising that orthodox campaigns have achieved far too little. A comprehensive review of research on campaigning states that “[p]erceived efficacy has been identified as a critical factor in driving motivations to engage in collective action”.

In order to attract the additional supporters we need, it is vital to show them that we have tactics they can believe have a good chance of success. Otherwise, because climate breakdown is so serious, many potential supporters will continue to avert their attention from it due to feelings of despair. It is important to remember that many people distrust governments, so it is hard to get them to believe that taking part in a campaign targeted on government would be worthwhile. Moreover, as governments overall have taken so little effective action on climate change despite dire warnings going back so many years that “time is running out”, we should not put all our campaign eggs in the government basket, especially at times when no election is imminent. We need at least a few different tactics with different targets, capable of attracting potential supporters with different outlooks.

Chris Packham has emphasised that campaigners should cease “plying the same old tricks time and time again” but take actions displaying imagination and originality which can “enlarge our community”. Some of these should target the relatively weak areas of the institutions which support fossil fuel production to pressure them to impose strong incentives to move rapidly towards renewable energy instead.

Banks play a massive and central role in the world economy. Therefore, a high profile campaign threatening the reputation, trust and strong branding for which banks strive by naming and shaming those which finance fossil fuels the most could attract huge support. Unlike governments, a bank and its bosses can rapidly suffer a severe financial hit if it is seen to be at risk of losing valuable customers to its competitors. Such concerns are behind the uneven moves away from fossil fuels which some banks have made in response to campaigns’ pressure. A European Central Bank leader stated that “the European banking sector still has too many banks with heavy cost structures competing for the same customers“, and that this “has resulted in persistently low profits”. Therefore, in Europe at least, bank campaigns could exert a strong influence. Such a campaign would be most effective by targeting one selected bank at a time in each country, maximising our pressure and showing its competitors that they would face the same pressure if they failed to improve. 

There are several other polluting sectors of the economy which could be weakened by activist pressure. These include manufacturers and retailers of high-emission cars and companies selling goods which are imported by air for purely commercial reasons. There are large numbers of activists who would be keen to name, shame and obstruct such companies. Such actions, targeting high-emissions products used only by affluent people, or products for which there are relatively low-emissions substitutes from other brands, would appear justifiable in many people’s eyes.

Campaigns could also strengthen and disseminate positive social norms by highlighting certain types of iniquitous high-carbon consumption by specific famous people. This could include challenging celebrities who fly often for work purposes to endorse the frequent flyer levy. Such actions could get huge publicity, and besides their direct political impact would encourage potential supporters to join us. These ideas are in line with George Monbiot’s call that “we have to be endlessly creative”. We must unleash our creativity! If you think any of the above ideas are worth pursuing, please tell senior people in any organisation to which you belong. We need to become more effective without delay!


  1. Nice to hear someone being critical for once of these glorified student protest movements.
    It should be obvious that the kind of societal change needed to deal with how we feed, clothe and shelter ourselves is different from progressing civil rights.

    Civil rights is ultimately just how we treat one another. Rebuilding our economies, creating completely new technologies and changing long-standing ways of life come at considerable cost. Political will is vital but not sufficient in itself.
    And which idiots failed to see how the slogsn “just stop oil” might go down in, say, Sri Lanka which is desperately short of fuel? Don’t these overgrown arts graduates get anything about the complexity of the real world they (barely seem to) inhabit?

  2. Largely agree. Why don’t we all concentrate on getting people’s homes insulated/retrofitted to cut energy bills as well as reducing CO2 emissions? It’s the cost of living crisis which is exercising people’s minds now and for the foreseeable future.

    A report by the Well-being of Future Generations Act Commissioner for Wales – “Homes fit for the Future: the Retrofit Challenge” (done in conjunction with the New Economics Foundation) argues that a £16 billion plan could – in addition to significantly reducing CO 2 emissions – eradicate fuel poverty by 2030; create over 26,000 jobs; improve health, and save bill payers £hundreds every year. It estimates that such a plan would save the NHS £4.4 billion. That’s a “win win” scenario which would appeal to the public. (In my economic ignorance I’m not sure whether this just refers to Wales – or the whole of the UK……)

    If every environmental and social justice org joined a coalition to concentrate on this we might get somewhere – and it could be used as a “gentle” way of bringing the public onboard for further action. ..

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