Greenpeace vs Sunak: an ambivalent confrontation

Climate change has hardly been out of the news this summer: record-breaking temperatures, forest fires and activism have made front-page headlines.

Professor Richard Beardsworth, an expert in the politics of climate change, writes about these recent events.

Greenpeace vs Sunak: an ambivalent confrontation. August 2023

On 3 August, Greenpeace activists draped the private home of British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in black fabric, holding one placard on the roof with the words ‘No new oil’ and one on the front lawn with the words ‘Rishi Sunak – Oil Profits or Our Future’. 

The protest lasted four hours; the activists await prosecution. Greenpeace’s peaceful direct action formed its response to Sunak’s granting of around one hundred new oil and gas licenses earlier that week amidst the immediacy of extreme weather events in southern Europe. For Greenpeace, the act served to highlight the inconsistency, moral bankruptcy, indeed corruption of this government and its leader two years after UK climate leadership at COP26 in Glasgow. As a political scientist, what do I make of this event? 

The government’s response to the escalading of Rishi Sunak’s house was prompt, forceful, but poor. Government ministers foregrounded, understandably, ‘the breach of security’; Therese Coffey, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, cut consultancy ties with Greenpeace; and Sunak reiterated the ‘pragmatic and proportional’ need for more oil and gas excavation and production to reinforce national energy security at a time of high living costs and ‘threats from dictators like Putin’.  

Greenpeace made light work of Sunak’s arguments. Climate science and international institutions have both made clear, it argued, that investment in new oil and gas fields (ones not already in development in 2021) is incompatible with the goals of the Paris Agreement (to keep average global temperature at best at 1.5C). 

It is also the case, it argued, that over 80% of the oil and gas produced will be sold by fossil fuel companies on international markets, which will not lead to cheaper domestic prices and a better national carbon footprint. Most citizens who follow the climate debate will have sided with Greenpeace, especially in the context of accelerating climate realities and the continued backsliding of this government on net zero obligations legislated by Parliament. As Labour leader Keir Starmer curtly put it: “Sunak’s actions this past week have exposed a Prime Minister who is led and does not lead, who has given up on the national interest for his own short-term interest.” In the terms of Greenpeace’s placard: His (political) profits, not our (human) future. 

That said, and in the context of an emerging culture war around net zero, was Greenpeace’s act of protest itself politically astute? I do not think so.

Greenpeace activist, Philip Evans, when asked after the event if it was intrusive to target someone’s private home, replied: “This is the Prime Minister. He is the one that was standing in Scotland, [announcing they were] going to drill for every last drop of oil while the world is burning. He is personally responsible for that decision, and we are all going to pay a high price if he goes through with it. It is personal.” 

Is, however, the personal political in this instance? However blurred in reality, the distinction between public office and private life remains legally critical in democracies to guarantee the parameters of state action. Action by a civil society organisation against this very distinction is not justified in this case. 

When Greenpeace mounted solar heating on the roof of John Prescott’s home in 2005 (then Deputy Prime Minister) or ring-fenced David Cameron’s home for ‘fracking’ in 2014 (when Prime Minister), both acts were, conversely, done with good humour, underlining the hypocrisy of current government policy (on reducing heating bills and underground fracking). The draping of Rishi Sunak’s private home in black fabric does not attain, to my mind, this kind of needling creativity and, as a result, reverts quickly to being a publicity stunt alone. 

That many have confused this act with those of the civil resistance group, Just Stop Oil, is telling in this context. Whatever one thinks of the latter group’s ethics, conservatives have alighted upon its tactics of recurrent disruptive action – from the disruption of motorways and the underground, through that of the Grand National to the slow marches in London – to drive a cultural wedge between ‘netzeroists’ (the new terrorists?) and those ‘trying to get on with their everyday lives’.

Although more popular than Just Stop Oil, through its act Greenpeace has run the risk of being placed in the same cultural box as that of more disruptive groups and, against its intention, of sustaining a politically polarised society. At a moment when collective action is required across democratic society to accelerate the speed and scale of climate action, the tactics behind Greenpeace’s action are politically misplaced for these reasons – despite the legitimacy of its reasons for action. However excellent the climate science, the politics of climate change is fickle and requires continuous judgment.

Richard Beardsworth is Head of School of POLIS and Professor of International Politics. His main research interest lies in climate leadership and the international politics of climate change.

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