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Why Insulate Britain and XR are Failing to Win Over the Public

Katharine Quarmby finds that eco-activists are divided about the best way forward to raise awareness of climate change

Police officers detain protesters from Insulate Britain occupying a roundabout leading from the M25 motorway to Heathrow Airport in London. Photo: PA Images/Alamy

Why Insulate Britain and XR Are Failing to Win Over the Public

Katharine Quarmby finds that eco-activists are divided about the best way forward to raise awareness of climate change

Ahead of the United Nation’s COP26 climate conference in Glasgow later this year, a resurgent wave of climate action has seen the environmental movement conflicted about ways forward that could put pressure on politicians. Some activists argue that extreme action – even with the potential of tragedy – may be necessary to jolt public opinion and politicians. Others feel that there are better ways of galvanising change. 

The thing about direct action is that you put your own life and liberty on the line, but not those of other people

John Sauven, director of Greenpeace UK

In the last few weeks a new environmental group, Insulate Britain (IB), has brought traffic to a standstill on Britain’s busiest road, the M25, and blockaded the Port of Dover. Both actions caused long tailbacks; videos showed some risky scenes of traffic swerving around protestors and frustrated drivers confronted the protestors, who were glued on to the road at key junctions. One driver said that his mother may now be paralysed as he was stuck in traffic for six hours taking her to hospital. IB, for the moment, seems undeterred and plans are afoot to target the Conservative Party Conference next week – despite an injunction limiting its action.

Activists arrested for blocking the motorway last week were released without conditions, despite the High Court injunction, which does not contain a power of arrest. Roger Hallam, its founder, was among them. IB did not respond to requests for an interview from Byline Times

Hallam, a former organic farmer, was a co-founder of the environmental group Extinction Rebellion, (XR), along with a small group of around 15 fellow activists and friends, including the environmentalist, Gail Bradbrook. XR activists blockaded key parts of London in 2019 and became part of a global movement out on the streets for change. 

Shortly before, in 2018, a youth-led movement, Fridays for Future, inspired by the activist, Greta Thunberg, took off, in which children and parents protested about the climate crisis on Fridays. School strikes have since restarted after lockdown and take place in 7500 cities. 


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The Role of Direct Action

Environmental activists have long been divided about the best ways to raise awareness of climate emergency and mobilising for change, but those internal debates have crystallised more recently in the run-up to COP26 and IB’s tactics have come under particular scrutiny, with some activists arguing that they may not only fail but be counter-productive. 

IB’s tactics are noteworthy and have garnered much media attention – but so did those of XR previously. Read, for his part, defends the record of XR but is also self-critical about its success, writing that it both worked – in terms of raising awareness – but didn’t work as action since has been limited.

Activists in the group had differing opinions on the evolution of direct action within XR in particular, with Hallam and others arguing for Heathrow Airport to be shut down using drones, which others opposed saying that it could compromise safety and alienate the public. Hallam and a small number of activists created a breakaway group called Heathrow Pause. Hallam was arrested twice in three days after trying to fly a drone near the airport. Hallam left XR in 2019, after comments he had made about the Holocaust came to light. He then founded the political party, Burning Pink, followed by IB in short order. 

One tragedy is one too many. We also have to stop denying the fact that millions and millions of lives are already being lost

Reverend Sue Parfitt

John Sauven is the director of Greenpeace UK. He recently narrowly avoided a two-year jail sentence when Greenpeace UK was fined £80,000 for disrupting a BP oil rig for 12 days in 2019. One of Sauven’s roles is to risk assess the non-violent direct actions that the organisation undertakes. He takes the long view of protesting, looking back to the 1990 roads protests, in which activists took direct action campaigning against the expansion of roadbuilding, as well as the Women’s Peace Camp at RAF Greenham, where women protested nuclear weapons being placed there from 1981-2000. He is at pains to praise the work of new grassroots organisations, including XR. “The activists are part and parcel of civil society and bring in new people to the environmental movement, which is great.”

But Sauven makes a distinction between the work they do and that of the tactics of Insulate Britain. “The thing about direct action is that you put your own life and liberty on the line, but not those of other people…The problem with IB is that by going out in front of cars on a busy motorway I guarantee you that at some time people may be injured or killed. It puts innocent people, including children, at risk. Those people haven’t volunteered to do that and it oversteps the mark.” 

Insulating Britain

Members of Christian Climate Action (CCA), the Christian wing of XR, join in with other groups of climate protestors which share the same philosophy. There are six CCA members working with IB.

One of them is Reverend Sue Parfitt, a 79-year-old vicar. Parfitt told Byline Times that she believes “it is a proper exercise of my priesthood to spend most of my time on helping to at least slow down the climate catastrophe.”  Parfitt, along with other CCA members has also participated in protests for XR, has protested within Church House about the Church of England investing in oil and has glued herself to court furniture to raise awareness of climate change.

Parfitt adds that whilst she regrets inconveniencing the public, IB actions are carefully planned and considered. “We know that as with all previous movements of social protest, such as civil rights, the suffragettes and anti-apartheid, some disruption of the public is required.”

Byline Times asked Parfitt about the criticism of some of the tactics that could endanger both protestors and the public. Parfitt explains that emergency vehicles are let through and the hard shoulder kept clear. But she goes on to say: “Most regretfully there will be tragedies and one cannot weigh up the relative value of people’s lives as they cannot be compared. One tragedy is one too many. We also have to stop denying the fact that millions and millions of lives are already being lost” [because of climate change]. 

Sauven disagrees and fears a motorway pile up as a result of IB actions – but is at pains to praise the work of other groups, such as Occupy, Green New Deal Rising (GND) and the anti-austerity movement, Los Indignados, in Spain. “Groups can come and go, but they are powerful. The new organisations made up of young people, such as GND  – are very eloquent. Young people talking to those in power can be really influential. It’s much more powerful than adults doing it.” 

New Deal Rising

Young people from the group, Green New Deal Rising, have confronted the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and others, sharing their videos of startled and clearly uncomfortable politicians on social media. The group, which aims to “widen the circle” of people involved in the environmental movement, promises that it will “rise up… and keep rising up.. the only thing that has ever altered the course of history is a huge disruptive movement willing to do what it takes to win.” 

GND, thus far, has had a mainly sympathetic press response. IB, by contrast, has divided opinions more radically – and this division goes back, in many ways, to the debate about whether XR failed or succeeded. Rupert Read has argued previously in Byline Times that it is a bit of both – it raised climate consciousness but it didn’t change policy at the sharp end.

IB was born out of that frustration and its response was to become more radical still. But Read believes that whilst the general public’s awareness of climate change has moved, partly due to actions from groups like XR, the actions that IB are engaged in don’t have the “positive dimension” that will mobilise the 3.5% of the population that XR had always estimated was needed to galvanise change. 

He tells Byline Times that there is a “grave danger in actions that appear to target ordinary people” which he dubs blunt instruments that have no power to resonate and to change minds. In fact, Read argues that they may in fact be counterproductive and cause a waning in public sympathy, as well as encouraging more repressive police action. 

Read has argued instead for what he calls “Robin Hood actions” by radical groups – such as stealing insulation and installing it in the lofts of social housing residents. He argues as well for more entryism into what he calls “leverage points’, pointing to groups such as Lawyers For Net-Zero. He argues instead for a “mass moderate flank” to put pressure on governments, rather than more radical, smaller groups. 

Parfitt and others engaged in IB actions are pursuing another path – in her case on the grounds of obedience “to a higher authority”. She tells Byline Times that she sees the work she does as resisting “the forces of evil that I see residing in the fossil fuel industry.” IB’s protests are due to gather pace again next week. The debate within the environmental movement – as well as amongst the general public – isn’t going to be over soon. 

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