Since the environmentalist protest group Just Stop Oil launched in April 2022, viral stunts have punctuated its ascent to notoriety. Video clips of activists dangling precariously from cables over the Dartford Crossing, or dousing historic artefacts in substances ranging from tomato soup to human faeces, have polarised the British public. Because of stunts like those, along with more traditional direct action such as blocking roads, 92 per cent of Britons are aware of Just Stop Oil.
But at what cost? In late November the organisation reported 2,000 arrests of its members since the start of its campaign calling for the government to halt new fossil fuel licensing and production – with 24 supporters still behind bars in mid-December.
New Statesman analysis of data from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (Acled), an open-source registry tracking all reported political violence and protest events around the world, reveals the changing tactics of British climate protest groups since the start of 2020.
Protests are categorised by Acled as either “peaceful protest” or “protest with intervention” (in this case, meaning intervention by British police forces). While the frequency of peaceful climate protests in Britain has slightly declined over the past three years, the frequency of climate protests with police intervention is rising. This may stem from a combination of police becoming more hostile to climate activists and protesters’ more radical tactics in recent months.
By analysing the number of peaceful protests and protests with police intervention recorded by Acled, the New Statesman found no obvious rise in police intervention in non-climate protests recorded in the same period.
The above chart shows a declining frequency of peaceful climate protests: the sort that larger swathes of the general public participate in. In response to this trend, Oscar Berglund, a political scientist studying civil disobedience at the University of Bristol, said: “It is very difficult to sustain mass movements [with] large numbers of people… Most people just get on with their lives and stop seeing the point of [engaging in] regular protests.”
By contrast, he added, those engaging in smaller-scale, more disruptive protests using direct action are almost always going to be a minority group.
Data tracking both public concern and media coverage of climate change also suggests the broader climate movement is struggling to maintain momentum. Media mentions and concern peaked during the UN’s global Cop26 climate conference which took place in Glasgow last November.
Levels of public awareness were also at a high in late 2019, during the peak of the protest network Extinction Rebellion’s civil disobedience campaign. This was before its presence diminished, partly due to the pandemic and partly because its leader Roger Hallam split from the group in 2020.
Hallam felt the best way to protest was to mobilise smaller groups of individuals prepared to take disruptive action. As a result, he went on to found Insulate Britain and later Just Stop Oil, which both returned to Extinction Rebellion’s initial modus operandi of member arrests.
Insulate Britain and Just Stop Oil’s strategies are more focused, with both groups “clever” for naming themselves after the “clear demands” they have, said Berglund. This means, in the case of the former, it can claim a win with the government’s rollout of a home insulation scheme.
Recent government attempts to crack down on climate protests are leading to more arrests and harsher punishments.
“The government has attacked the right to protest through increasingly draconian legislation [in recent years],” said Russell Fraser, a criminal defence barrister at Garden Court Chambers, who has represented members of these climate groups in court. “First, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act gave the police more powers – powers they didn’t need – to put restrictions on protests.”
Despite some proposals being defeated earlier this year in the House of Lords, Fraser said the government was “undeterred”, introducing the Public Order Bill earlier in 2022, which further expanded police powers to crack down on protest tactics.
“The government,” he continued, “seeks to further criminalise those who engage in direct-action civil disobedience by methods such as ‘locking on’ or obstructing the highway. It is inevitable that these measures will see unprecedented numbers of peaceful protesters before the courts in the years to come.”
In late November, Jan Goodey, a Just Stop Oil campaigner, became the first person to be sentenced under the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act due to protests on the M25 motorway. Soon after, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak promised to clamp down even harder on protesters.
In the face of harsher penalties, and relatively weak public support (YouGov polling from November showed just 21 per cent of UK adults support the tactics of Just Stop Oil compared with 64 per cent who oppose), some have queried whether the activists’ tactics are effective enough to be worthwhile.
Yet historically, mainstream movements have benefited from the “more extreme tactics” of radical outcrops to make their demands appear “more palatable” by contrast, said Heather Alberro, a lecturer in global sustainable development at Nottingham Trent University.
This is known as the “radical flank” effect. Research by the Social Change Lab, a non-profit research company, claims to have found evidence of this with the first analysis of large-scale public polling on an ongoing campaign. Over the period of Just Stop Oil’s M25 campaign in November 2022, the number of people saying they support Friends of the Earth’s goals increased from 50.4 per cent of the UK population to 53.7 per cent. According to the Social Change Lab director James Ozden, this represents a “statistically significant” finding, representing an additional 2.02 million people in the UK.
These findings bode well for Just Stop Oil protesters, who have stated that only the threat of a death sentence will stop them engaging in direct action. While extreme, the activists argue that the alternative to their demands not being fulfilled is also death – by means of climate breakdown.
Note on data methodology
From a list of more than 5,000 protests in the UK, those included in this analysis featured one of the following groups as primary actors: Extinction Rebellion (and its offshoots); Climate Strike; Cop26 Coalition; Friends of the Earth; Greenpeace; Fridays for Future; UK Student Climate Network; Insulate Britain; Just Stop Oil; Stay Grounded.
These were then filtered using a list of climate-related search terms to remove protests that were not considered to be about climate change, for example when Extinction Rebellion protesters participated in protests against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. The rest of the protests by non-climate actors were also filtered using this same list and some were added to the list of climate protests after manual review.
As Acled sometimes records coordinated events on the same day or in close proximity as multiple events, this analysis counts the number of days per month on which different types of protests are recorded to avoid double counting.
Non-climate protests were also analysed for increased police intervention using the same methodology and no discernable pattern was found.