Last Thursday a group of Greenpeace activists draped UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s North Yorkshire mansion in black fabric, protesting in response to Sunak’s announcement that the UK will “max out” its oil and gas reserves and award hundreds of new licences for oil and gas drilling in the North Sea.
The activists were arrested amid the predictable outrage of the tabloid media. The Daily Mail, for example, in its characteristically smug viciousness, lambasted the event as “a humiliating symbol of our supine tolerance of a tiny, self-obsessed bunch of zealots who disrupt everyday life with impunity”.
Disruptive protests are on the rise as more and more people become increasingly dismayed and terrified by the astounding disconnect between the action we know we must take to address the multiple crises facing the planet and the decisions being made by our so-called leaders.
That’s particularly true for young people, who will be forced to live with the consequences of today’s political decisions – decisions by leaders like Sunak. He announced his intention to support a dramatic increase in fossil fuel extraction shortly after the world’s hottest month on record – ever. And after global headlines, for weeks on end, had been dominated by news of the effects of soaring temperatures and record-breaking heatwaves, wildfires and floods.
Our own electricity minister, Kgosientsho Ramokgopa, was also the target of a protest on Friday, when activists from Extinction Rebellion interrupted a lecture he was giving at the University of Pretoria. Before they were removed by security guards, the activists told Ramokgopa that no just transition is happening, and that they are “tired of [his] promises” and “tired of big coal determining our future”.
They have good grounds to protest. Speaking at another event, organised by Standard Bank a few weeks earlier, the minister commented on the closure of Komati power station, stating – falsely, as he must know – that despite Komati being the “best-performing power station”, it was shut down because “someone gave us money and said: ‘Decarbonise it’”.
In doing this, Ramokgopa made it depressingly clear that he, like so many of the world’s politicians, has no qualms about distorting the facts to suit his personal political agenda. (Sunak in the same vein claims that his oil and gas plan is “entirely consistent” with the UK’s target to reach net zero emissions by 2050.)
In South Africa at least, there are no consequences for peddling such misinformation. So the minister continues to speak at high-profile events, where his manifest failure to demonstrate that he grasps the magnitude of the responsibility he has been given is politely ignored.
This is only one small example of the hypocrisy and selfish short-sightedness that characterises political discourse on climate change. We are left with the growing sense that the Paris Agreement is something we might have read about in a fairytale, not a bold plan of action adopted by almost 200 states responsible for 98% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
The case for disruption
In a world where not even dramatic visible manifestations of climate change appear able to catalyse political will to act decisively and urgently – and where it often seems as if those with the power to change our trajectory are determined to maintain the status quo – disruptive protest becomes a perfectly feasible course of action.
The indignation that many people feel at the disruption of sporting or cultural events, delays to their daily commute or the defacing of works of art is understandable. But the activists who carry out these protests and demonstrations, facing arrest and public censure for their deeds, are not doing it just to be annoying. They are trying to draw our attention to the lunacy of behaving as if all is well when the world is on fire and our elected leaders, backed by the financial power of the fossil fuel industry, keep throwing more fuel onto the blaze.
So the next time you find yourself feeling irritated by an Extinction Rebellion or Just Stop Oil protest, ask yourself who the real members of the “tiny, self-obsessed group of zealots” are: the activists fighting for the future or the politicians destroying it?
This article was first published in the Financial Mail on 10 August 2023.
By: Tracey Davies