The leaflet that alerted Ben to the meetingBen Conway

Just Stop Oil is a remarkably polarising organisation. A recent YouGov survey reported that 82% of UK adults believe that climate change is an important issue to tackle. However, 68% nonetheless disapprove of JSO, despite tackling climate change being their sole purpose. This is likely down to their controversial, public-facing protest tactics, which include disruptions to sports events, motorways, art exhibitions, oil facilities, and a performance of Les Misérables.

Like many, I am deeply concerned by climate change, but equally feel enraged when I see protesters blocking the path of an ambulance. So, in October, I decided to attend a JSO meeting at St. Paul’s Church in Cambridge, after having a leaflet thrusted at me outside Mainsbury’s.

The meeting was small. There were roughly twenty attendees, mostly students. The main agenda point was a long speech by Cressida Gethin, one of JSO’s five founding members. After spending academic year 2021/22 as a music student at Murray Edwards College, Cressida dropped out to devote herself to full-time climate activism.

The first half of her address concerned the science behind climate change, which she said has been “settled for a long time”. She told the room that global average temperature has already increased by 1.2ºC compared to pre-industrial levels, and despite the promises of the The Paris Agreement, current projections have that figure at 1.5ºC as soon as 2027. A UN report from last year says that even if all climate policies are adhered to, there will still have been a rise in global average temperature of 2.1-2.9ºC.

Just as Cressida advanced into the more stirring part of her monologue, the fire alarm went off. This was ironic, as the famous disrupters were themselves disrupted. Indeed, one of the attendees, Chiara Sarti, informed me that the group had been described as sounding the “fire alarm” for climate change. Since I spoke to them, Chiara has become the face of some of JSO’s recent viral stunts, including defacing the front of King’s College in October.

“I still do not agree with plenty of what they say and do, regardless of the nobility of their cause”

Chiara pointed me towards a paper on climate change, “Quantifying the human cost of global warming”. It conceptualises the human climate niche, a range in temperature between the two points at which global population density peaks. The highest peak is at a mean annual temperature of ~13ºC, and the secondary peak is at a mean annual temperature of ~27ºC. The paper claims that humans have evolved, physiologically and culturally, to prosper most at these two peaks. This is supported by the fact that the “density of domesticated crops and livestock follow similar distributions”.

Crucially, living in an area outside of the niche is linked to a host of unwanted consequences, not least “increased morbidity”, likely forcing “adaptation in place or displacement (migration elsewhere)”. The paper states that already, more than 600 million people (~9% of world population) are outside of the niche. Forecasts of 2.7ºC global warming (consistent with the aforementioned 2.1-2.9ºC range) would leave anywhere between 22-39% of the world’s population outside of the niche.

The forced migration of many of these people would make them “climate refugees”, by Cressida’s reckoning. And the knowledge that world leaders possess of the disastrous consequences of global warming, and their continued willingness to allow activities that drive it - like the hundreds of new North Sea oil and gas licences in the UK - makes them complicit in an “act of mass murder” and a “genocide”.

What can regular people, who are not influential politicians, do about all of this? JSO’s answer is civil disobedience. Cressida spoke about the civil rights movement in 1960s USA, specifically the plight of the Freedom Riders, as a powerful example of this. In May 1961, a group comprising seven African-Americans and six white Americans sat together for a cross-country bus journey, which was forbidden by segregation law at the time. Along the journey they endured bombings and violent mob beatings, and graphic images of these events adorned the front pages of national and international newspapers at the time.


Mountain View

Just Stop Oil march in Cambridge after ‘dismal’ COP28

After their first Freedom Ride, the associated danger meant that no bus driver would agree to take the original group on another. But it was the public attention that the original ride drew that was most crucial. All of a sudden, other groups of Freedom Riders formed all across the country, and protested in the same way. Conversations about the morality of such laws were instigated in classrooms, workplaces, and homes. Robert Kennedy, then Attorney General, was forced to publicly address the issue, as support for the riders snowballed.

Later that same year, the segregation law was scrapped, which represented a real milestone for the movement. And Cressida attributed that to the actions of regular people, who enacted real, important change when they worked together, contravened laws, and acted as a thorn in the side of the authorities. This is exactly what JSO’s protest techniques do, and is “something we can all do”, according to Cressida.

All in all, I’m glad that I attended. It helped me to understand a lot more about why these activists feel so passionate about their cause, and why they stand by their controversial tactics undeterred by unfavourable public opinion. I still do not agree with plenty of what they say and do, regardless of the nobility of their cause, and that is a perspective seemingly shared by many. What seems less divisive, however, is the pervasive, swelling, and ultimately very worrying effects of climate change - and at least they’re doing something about it.