Insulate Britain: A Cold Reception from the Conservatives

Anyone with an eye on the media will have struggled to avoid the recent Insulate Britain protests, with 12 disruptive actions in the last 4 weeks. Protestors have blocked traffic on the M25, the M4 and the M1 around London, calling for urgent government action on the housing and the climate crisis. Through disruptive civil disobedience, Insulate Britain aims to pressure the Government into agreeing to ‘fully fund and take responsibility for the insulation of all social housing in Britain by 2025’. Protestors claim action will continue until the Government makes a ‘meaningful statement’, by committing to insulate Britain’s homes.

The Insulate Britain protests demand urgent action to be taken to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The group argues that improving the quality of homes – via energy efficient measures such as insulation – is fundamental in reaching the Government’s commitments to tackling the climate crisis. According to the pressure group, UK homes are amongst the least energy efficient in Europe, with research from Insulate Britain citing that emissions from heating and powering homes must be reduced by 78% in less than 15 years, to meet UK commitments under the 2015 Paris Agreement, to stay below 1.5C of global warming. 

Climate scientists and policy experts have thrown support behind Insulate Britain’s demands, with the Construction Leadership Council confirming that renovating the UK’s housing would cut bills, saving consumers around £400 per-year in energy costs. Insulate Britain argues that such measures would be part of a just transition to fully decarbonise of all parts of society and the economy.

The group’s call for action on the climate crisis is yet another voice in the growing list of climate groups such as Extinction Rebellion – of which Insulate Britain protestors claim to have formed from – and the School Strike 4 Climate. Yet, Insulate Britain’s method of protest has proved more widely controversial, raising the question; is it worth the disruption? 

Ultimately, Yes. Whilst the videos of delayed drivers dragging protestors out of the road, and one woman pleading to get to her sick mother in hospital, have shown the dismay the protests have caused for London residents, it is inaction from Government ministers that truly underscores the need for disruptive civil disobedience. 

Recent examples of climate protests show that disruption works. In 2008, protests delaying the building of coal-fired power station in Kent resulted in the plans being abandoned. The 2018 protests targeting the Heathrow Airport runway expansion similarly created disruption, with hunger strikes grounding planes and gaining intense media attention. Both old and new protests clearly demonstrate the popular demand for climate action from the Government, that many activist feel are yet to be seen. 

Despite the overwhelming demands for climate action, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, disclosed he had applied for a court injunction which would see Insulate Britain protesters jailed. Additionally, Home Secretary Priti Patel announced new measures to restrict protests deemed to cause ‘noise and nuisance’, whilst speaking at the Conservative party conference. Such measures – coalescing in the recent Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill – embody a government set on sidestepping the demands of protestors attempting highlight the global existential issue of climate change. Such measures are simply designed to make actions carried out by environmental protestors, and those of anti-racism protestors during summer 2020, virtually impossible. 

Disruptive as these protests may be, and despite the Home Secretary’s aim to restrict ‘noise and nuisance’, how else do we get politicians to listen? A trip to the ballot box every five years or so, cannot be the only method of holding government action (or inaction) to account. Clamping down on the citizens’ right to protest, undeniably infringes upon their democratic rights and sees the UK slide closer to an authoritarian political system.

Although the disruptions of the Insulate Britain protests may make even the strongest sympathisers raise an eyebrow of concern, the climate crisis simply cannot be ignored. Whether actual or perceived, inaction from Government ministers underscores the urgency and necessity of public environmental protest. 

However, action and protest can only force the Government’s hand if protestors can keep the public on their side. As Insulate Britain’s protests continue to cause disruption – and in some cases danger – the more immediate challenge facing the protestors will be to save face. Is there a method of protest that can clutch media attention, yet avoid disruption?

If the Conservative government continues with injunction and inaction, one can only hope we find it. 

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