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Irish climate activist How my Just Stop Oil arrest gives me hope for the future

Dr Genevieve Shanahan is an Irish lecturer in Cardiff. She explains why she joined Just Stop Oil.

I RECENTLY FOUND myself in a police cell for the first time in my life. This was an unusual turn of events, as anyone who knows me would say my reverence for rules often makes me a bit of a pain in the neck.

Yet throughout the 12 hours I spent on the Big Naughty Step in London, I didn’t once regret the action that had got me there: slow marching outside the Palace of Westminster as UK politicians gathered to do nothing about temperatures breaking records across the world.

The demand: No New Oil

Like most Irish people, I’m alarmed that we’re currently on track to breeze through the 1.5°C Paris Agreement goal – the limit on increasing global average temperature we set even before we understood how severe the effects of warming would be. I’m angry that our government is failing to do what is needed to protect our lives and living standards from the devastating implications of irreversible cascade effects triggered by this breach.

Like many, I’ve tried expressing my concerns through the normal channels of voting, letter-writing, signing petitions and joining demonstrations. I’ve tried doing my bit professionally as an academic in a UK business school, focusing my research and teaching on sustainability transitions.

This latter experience has convinced me that progress will be impossible without decisive government action to align the economic incentives facing businesses with the urgency of the climate crisis. Where energy companies are allowed to pursue profit through investing in new fossil fuel infrastructure, they will demand returns on that investment. Their powerful lobbying efforts to “knee-cap” policies designed to phase out fossil fuel use will continue. If we don’t intervene, fossil fuel companies will lock us onto the most destructive emission pathways.

Just Stop Oil is an environmental activism group and it has one demand: that the UK government immediately halt licensing all new fossil fuel infrastructure. This is not a radical demand by any means – it’s the position of the British Conservative’s own chairman of the Committee on Climate Change, the International Energy Agency and the United Nations. These bodies all agree that developing any new fossil fuel projects would make breaching the 1.5C ceiling inevitable.

The requirement to cease all licensing of new oil and gas is so common-sense that it is core to the proposed United Nations Climate Solidarity Pact.

It is already Irish government policy. In the UK, the governments of Wales and Scotland have made the commitment, alongside all the main political parties – with the key exception of the Conservatives.

Shockingly, in fact, the Tories are continuing to pursue licensing for over 100 new oil and gas projects ahead of their presumptive defeat in the next general election. Worse, UK Labour leader Keir Starmer has indicated that a Labour government will honour any licences issued by the Conservatives in the intervening period, which could run as far as January 2025.

The tactic: Slow marching

We are tantalisingly close to achieving a historic inflexion point in greenhouse gas emissions, but the UK government is squandering this opportunity. Ordinary methods of protest are simply no match for the magnitude and urgency of the present danger.

This crucial moment requires more demanding democratic acts of civil resistance. This realisation is what pushed me to join Just Stop Oil and participate in their slow-marching pressure campaign.

Slow marches, like labour strikes, are designed to obstruct business as usual. Like striking, the disruption impacts everyone who relies on normal operations, not just the targeted decision-makers. This is what makes slow marching controversial, but it is also what makes slow marching effective. No matter how you feel about fossil fuels, we all agree the disruptions have to stop. The UK government introduced contentious new anti-protest laws to try to force this stop. Yet by persisting despite arrests, fines and imprisonment, we make clear that our campaign will not end until our single common-sense demand is met.

This is why I have so far participated in 12 slow marches around London, alongside other ordinary people including workers using their annual leave, parents and grandparents, clerics and young people. Before each march, we review our safety measures, including how to carefully allow emergency vehicles to pass, and how to respond peacefully to violence from a minority of frustrated drivers.

We remind ourselves of our purpose: disrupting ordinary people just trying to go about their day is uncomfortable, but it is one of the last tools we have to prevent the much more severe disruptions locked in by new oil and gas infrastructure, such as heat-related deaths, food shortages, disease outbreaks, mass migration and violent conflict.

We then step into the road and keep marching until the police intervene. Ordinarily, I bow out when the officers announce arrests are imminent. But on the day I was arrested, looking up at the UK seat of power – and thinking about how decisions made there will impact my family back home – we chose to continue marching.

We cannot give up

I was released from the police station at 4 am the following morning to the embrace of fellow Just Stop Oil supporters. Once home, I texted my 24-year-old brother back in Cork, who had recently visited and joined a day of slow marches.

Like many his age, he’s trying to plan a life and guess what career and family choices might be reasonable in an extremely unpredictable future.

Being a rule follower too, my brother reflected on how it felt to disobey police orders to take his demands to the footpath. He described feeling steady in his conviction that continuing to slow march is the right thing to do, that non-disruptive action is not enough in this urgent moment.

As Greta Thunberg put it recently following her own arrest, “we cannot save the world by playing by the rules because the rules have to be changed.”

These young people breaking the rules in service of what is right give me hope. If you want to feel hopeful too, there’s no better time to join the growing Irish climate movement:

- One Future
- Extinction Rebellion Ireland
- Friends of the Earth Ireland
No New Gas campaign

Dr Genevieve Shanahan is a lecturer in Management, Employment and Organisation at Cardiff Business School. Her research focuses on democratic means of transitioning to a more just and sustainable society. She is originally from Cork.


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Dr Genevieve Shanahan
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