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Opinion: ‘Just Stop Oil protesters are not in it to be liked’

23 June 2023

Many hate the movement’s methods — but there is evidence that they are working, argues Peter Lippiett


Maggie and Peter Leppiett march with a Just Stop Oil banner, in Vauxhall Bridge Road, on 16 June

Maggie and Peter Leppiett march with a Just Stop Oil banner, in Vauxhall Bridge Road, on 16 June

“YOU’RE a disgrace to the cloth!” the commuter shouted at me, as the police moved us off a thronged Newington Causeway a week ago. “Look after your flock! Do your job!”

“This is my job,” I replied, “and I haven’t a flock; I’m retired.”

“Well, the Archbishop of Canterbury should be ashamed of you!”

This was quite the mildest abuse my wife, Maggie, and I received last week, slow marching with Just Stop Oil in the London rush-hour noise and heat. The anger and aggression were palpable: the invective heated and unimaginatively obscenely repetitive, the blaring of car horns and sirens cacophonous. But so — wonderfully — was the support: closer, quieter, muttered thank-yous, thumbs up, claps. A spiritual lifesaver for us was a midday eucharist at St Martin-in-the-Fields as we passed by, exhausted from five hours of marching in the sun, and the priest quietly thanked us “for our witness”.

Just Stop Oil is exactly what it says on the tin. I am a grandfather, a retired GP, an Anglican priest. On all those counts I support Just Stop Oil.

Our Government is set imminently to grant more than 100 new licences for exploration and development of new gas and oil in the North Sea. The International Energy Agency has said that, if we are to have any hope of staying within the 1.5ºC “safe” limit of global warming, we must immediately cease new oil, coal, and gas development.

Our Government says that it is a climate leader; it says that it is concerned about the plight of those suffering from the effects of drought, flooding, fire, and storms. The reality, however, is that, while it proclaims its own net-zero ambitions and successes, it is pushing fossil-fuel expansion and blocking onshore wind.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has made the science incontrovertible. Burning fossil fuels is heating our world. People are dying now, mostly in the global South, because of the global North’s historic and present greenhouse gas emissions. Yet in our country we have several years of fuel reserves to allow a rapid and just transition to enormously cheaper, cleaner, renewable energy in abundance.

HOW are Christians to act now? Of course we preach, teach, pray, write, and we lobby our MP, we organise locally, we give to environmental and humanitarian charities, we change our own personal lifestyles radically. Maggie and I — like you, probably — have done this increasingly over 20 years. But we know that Jesus calls us to love our neighbour, while effectively we remain complicit in climate murder.

Eight weeks ago, we joined the “Big One”: four days of peaceful climate protest in Parliament Square, with 60,000 to 90,000 protesters (News, 6 April). Maybe you were there, too. That weekend, there was no report of this on mainstream TV news. What will highlight this issue in the national consciousness? What will move it up the political agenda? This seems to be not a matter of science and rationality, but one of political will, and of the enormous influence of fossil fuel money.

In our privileged country, we still have the right peacefully to protest, to take to the streets to make demands. As I stepped into the traffic, I called to mind Martin Luther King, Jr: once the most hated man in the United States. Non-violent direct action has a noble history.

We appreciate that our tactics with Just Stop Oil are a pain in the neck to decent ordinary people going about their daily lives. But we are decent ordinary people, too — who have been through all the options available to us and are seemingly left with no other way to gain public and political attention to this greatest issue of our time.

I was astounded to find myself with a megaphone in the middle of Vauxhall Bridge Road, talking about Jesus and his story about the Good Samaritan tending the beaten up man, while the priest and the temple official “passed by on the other side”. Which side are we to take? The police then — as every time — swarmed around us like bees, moving off the road those not brave enough to further their stand by being arrested for not complying with Suella Braverman’s draconian new take on the Public Order Act, Section 12.

We saw both appalling, trigger-happy policing, and exemplary, careful policing. Mostly, the police, too, are decent ordinary people; some were genuinely interested, a few were charming. The great range of Just Stop Oil protesters were among the bravest, kindest, most committed people it has ever been my privilege to meet.

WE BELIEVE that we are winning. We are not in it to be liked. Many may hate us and our methods, but there is clear evidence that they are moving the agenda. Less edgy environmental groups, such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, are growing. The “Overton window” effect is shifting opinion. All our main political parties except that of the Government, now agree: no new oil.

A disgrace to the cloth? Quite possibly. A disgrace to Christ’s gospel? I believe not. Is the Archbishop of Canterbury ashamed of me? I have no idea — and that’s not the issue.

Canon Peter Lippiett is a volunteer priest at St Mary’s, Twyford, Winchester.

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