The UK government has recently announced it will grant over 100 new licences to drill for oil and gas in the North Sea despite its legally binding commitment to achieve net zero status by 2050. As a general election approaches, and with the ruling Conservative Party trailing in the polls, there’s growing evidence that it intends to adopt a culture-war strategy on climate change, which can only cause a further burgeoning of environmental and climate disinformation. Civil society keeps demanding that the government drops its fossil fuel plans, but is being criminalised as restrictions against mobilisation grow.

Everything had pointed to a win for the opposition Labour Party. The occasion was a by-election in the outer London constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip, one of three votes held on 20 July due to resignations of ruling Conservative Party members of parliament (MPs).

The seat was that of disgraced former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who’d resigned as an MP following an investigation that concluded he’d misled parliament over a series of gatherings that broke the government’s pandemic rules. But with the Conservatives badly behind in the polls, all three seats had been expected to switch to opposition parties, worsening the woes of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

Except in Uxbridge and South Ruislip the anticipated defeat never happened. Conservative candidate Steve Tuckwell hung on with a narrow win. It had been an election campaign in which a local issue played an unusually large role: the planned introduction by the Mayor of London, Labour’s Sadiq Khan, of a London-wide charge on the most polluting vehicles. The capital’s Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) is soon to be extended from inner London to the whole city.

The health benefits seem clear enough. London has some of the UK’s worst quality air, with road vehicles being the single biggest source of pollutants such as nitrous oxide, linked to illnesses including cancer and asthma. Research conducted in 2019 showed that air pollution contributed to around 4,000 premature deaths in London that year. The existing scheme has been found to have cut pollution, with nitrous oxide down 23 per cent.

The scheme only applies to the older, dirtier vehicles that disproportionately produce emissions. Most cars in current use exceed the standard, meaning only one in 10 drivers will have to pay. But that’s not what people were told. ULEZ was an initiative of Johnson when he was Mayor of London and widened on the orders of the current Conservative national government. But for this by-election, the Conservatives seized on the issue, stoking fears that people living in the west London district would no longer be able to afford to use their cars.

A huge amount of disinformation about ULEZ circulated ahead of the vote and continues to this day. A recent widely shared tweet contained a made-up news article falsely claiming that Khan, a Muslim, had introduced an exemption on religious grounds. Research indicates there are around 3,700 fake Twitter accounts boosting anti-ULEZ disinformation, with paid followers worth around US$56,000.

A new wedge issue

What happened matters beyond a small corner of London. A beleaguered Sunak, desperately seeking to avoid crushing defeat at a general election next year, seized on the unexpected victory. Everything he’s done since suggests he’s embracing a culture war strategy on the environment and climate, just as on migrants and trans issues, manufacturing a wedge issue where not so long ago there was broad cross-party agreement. Sunak has since announced he’s putting himself on the side of ‘the motorist’ and ordered a review of low traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) – restrictions on road transport in residential areas – which he branded as ‘anti-car’.

In London, LTNs were mostly put in place by Labour-run councils during the height of the pandemic to make it easier for people to walk or cycle. They too have attracted a huge amount of disinformation and are the subject of conspiracy theories that attract both far-right and far-left support. A seemingly minor traffic-calming measure is interpreted as part of a sinister system of social control, in which pandemic restrictions acted as rehearsals for supposed ‘climate lockdowns’. Benign notions such as the ‘15-minute city’ – the idea that key amenities should be within a short walking distance rather than concentrated in city centres – are seen as akin to Stalinism. This seems a dangerous arena to be playing mainstream politics in, and doing so opens the risk of further legitimising extreme ideas and disinformation.

It’s not the only danger. Since the by-election, Sunak has also unveiled plans to grant over 100 new licences to drill for oil and gas in the North Sea. Hundreds more beyond that may be in prospect. This would surely be incompatible with the UK government’s legally binding commitment to achieve net zero status by 2050 – already too late a date. The UK is already missing almost all its climate targets and North Sea licences approved in the last two years will produce as much carbon dioxide as 14 million cars.

There’s never been much sense that Sunak – the UK’s richest-ever prime minister who habitually travels by private jet or helicopter – personally cares much about climate issues. His campaign for the party leadership was happy to receive ample donations from people and companies connected to fossil fuels. But in just a year and a half the UK government has gone from hosting the 2021 COP26 climate summit – and trying to position itself as a global climate leader – to promising to squeeze every last drop of fossil fuel from its waters. There seems little hope of the Conservatives returning to the climate commitments that saw them boasting they would be ‘the greenest government ever’ when they returned to power in 2010.

The government has attempted to justify its plans with reference to energy security in the context of Russia’s war on Ukraine and says it will also help the nation ride out energy price spikes. The reality is that any oil and gas extracted will be sold on the international market like all other supplies and subject to the same price volatility. There’s an opportunity cost too: consider what could be achieved if the same investment went into further developing North Sea wind energy.

To attempt to square the net zero circle, the government is putting a lot of its faith in carbon capture and storage plans – despite the technology having so far underperformed. Anything, it seems, rather than cut greenhouse gas emissions.

A raft of restrictions

Civil society is keeping up the pressure. The Good Law Project – a non-profit company that last year won a ruling that the government’s net zero strategy failed to comply with its binding commitments – will likely test the legality of the decision to grant new licences.

Groups are embracing disruptive non-violent action to communicate the urgent need to act on the climate crisis. In reaction to the announcement of new North Sea licences, Greenpeace activists staged a rooftop protest at a mansion owned by Sunak, and were arrested.

Just Stop Oil has staged numerous roadblocks and stunts that have interrupted a raft of recent high-profile sporting events, such as tennis at Wimbledon, test cricket between England and Australia and a rugby union final. Another group, This Is Rigged, recently disrupted the Cycling World Championships in Scotland – a particular target since the British cycling team last year signed an eight-year sponsorship deal with fossil fuel giant Shell.

Voices from the frontline

Mitch Rose is a volunteer activist with Just Stop Oil, a nonviolent civil resistance group demanding that the UK government stop licensing all new oil, gas and coal projects.


In the last few months, we have staged a series of high-profile non-violent protests to demand that the UK government immediately stop licensing all new oil, gas and coal projects. We blocked the M25 motorway with non-violent actions, threw orange-coloured confetti to stop a game at Wimbledon and threw soup at Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers, at the National Gallery in London, to name just a few.

We engage in peaceful disruptive civil disobedience to push and maintain the climate catastrophe in people’s minds and in the news cycle.

There has been some controversy around our tactics. It seems that those who disapprove are shouting the loudest, whereas those who support us tend to show their support in a quieter and more sincere way. People have come up to us when we are marching to thank us and tell us to keep going. It feels like a reflection of climate crisis generally: those who are suffering the most, in hotter, poorer countries, are heard the least.

The government response has been to try to criminalise us by bringing in tougher penalties for protesting. This includes bigger fines and longer prison sentences for peaceful protesters.

Their reaction is indicative of the funding and support – or, I would say, legalised bribes – they receive from the fossil fuel industry, which amounted to £3.5 million (approx. US$4.4 million) last year alone. They have even admitted their anti-protest laws were written by a right-wing think tank, Policy Exchange – also funded by fossil fuel giant, ExxonMobil.

I have taken part in several slow marches over the last few months. I was arrested on 19 July for slow marching in Parliament Square, minutes before Rishi Sunak arrived for Prime Minister’s Questions. I was only on the road for a matter of seconds before my arms were forcibly yanked behind my back, and handcuffs put on. I was detained in a police cell for 13 hours. My right to protest was violated, and the correct procedures for issuing a section 12 notice – a notice imposing conditions on protest under the Public Order Act – were not followed.

On top of imposing new draconian anti-protesting laws that restrict our legal right to take to the streets, the UK legal system is allowing big polluting companies, such as oil giant Valero, to buy the law in the form of high court injunctions. I’m one of several people who face spiralling costs and potential bankruptcy because civil injunctions are being bought to stop peaceful protests at oil terminals and on roads. Many of us have already spent time in prison and paid fines in criminal courts, and now civil courts also want to convict us all over again and get us to pay their legal costs.


This is an edited extract of our conversation with Mitch. Read the full interview here.

But when people take action, they face mounting obstacles. New laws give the police stronger powers to restrict and prevent protests, including on grounds of disruption and noise. In June, the law was further amended through an opaque procedure to give the police even broader powers to interpret what constitutes disruption.

It used to be the case that people convicted of offences in the course of peaceful protest wouldn’t be jailed, but that notion has been swept away. At the start of this year, at least 54 people, mostly climate protesters, were in jail for protest offences. In September 2022, over 50 Just Stop Oil protesters were sent to prison in a single day. Climate activists on trial have been told they can’t refer to the climate crisis in their defence. In March two activists were jailed for contempt of court after doing so.

Restrictions on climate activism are part of a barrage of escalating threats to civic space and democratic freedoms in the UK. Recognising this deteriorating situation, in March the UK’s rating on the CIVICUS Monitor – our online platform that assesses the state of civic space in 197 countries – was downgraded. It’s now classed as having obstructed civic space, just like Hungary, Poland and Serbia.

The UK government is sadly far from the only one targeting climate activism. Climate protesters have been arrested in Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands, to name but few. Several US states have introduced laws to make it harder to protest near pipelines and mines. Some Australian states have also passed anti-protest laws that have been used to target and jail climate activists.

Police violence has been used against anti-coalmine protesters in Germany, while activists against the East African Crude Oil Pipeline development in Tanzania and Uganda face constant threats and intimidation. Defenders of environmental and land rights in countries including Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and the Philippines live with continual danger of lethal violence.

The force keeping climate change high on the political agenda and communicating the need for urgent action isn’t governments or businesses – it’s civil society. But governments, even when they claim to be on the side of climate action, keep trying to silence the climate alarm.

To justify protest restrictions, Sunak constantly vilifies protesters, and particularly Just Stop Oil activists, who he calls ‘eco-zealots’. He seeks to drag them into party politics by accusing them of writing Labour’s energy policies, since both Just Stop Oil and the Labour Party receive donations from renewable energy millionaire Dale Vince.

This toxic discourse is encouraging and legitimising violence against peaceful protesters, as reflected in a string of recent assaults of people taking part in roadblock protests – including women.

The government response has been to try to criminalise us by bringing in tougher penalties for protesting. This includes bigger fines and longer prison sentences for peaceful protesters.


Meanwhile the need for climate action becomes clearer every day. The UK has had a wet and cool summer, but there’s daily news of life-threatening climate events: recent weeks alone have seen extreme heatwaves in China, Japan and South Korea, the Middle East and North Africa, North and South America and southern Europe. TV screens have been filled with dramatic images of out-of-control wildfires in Algeria and Greece. The records keep tumbling: July was the world’s hottest month on record. Science is increasingly certain that human-caused climate change is to blame. And yet the UK is choosing to further fan the flames.

Time for leadership

It needn’t be that way. Surveys show that British people are overwhelmingly concerned about climate change and rank it as one of their top priority issues. Party politics isn’t reflecting this.

The Conservatives’ latest anti-environment tactics may not be enough to save them from defeat, but they could help open the door for environmental and climate disinformation to play a stronger role in the campaign. Pro-car policies could also succeed in causing Labour, the likely next government, to water down its climate and environmental commitments.

There’s ample evidence that Labour leader Keir Starmer has junked policies seen as too left-wing or likely to scare off former Conversative voters. The party opposed new oil and gas licences, but Starmer says he wouldn’t revoke them. Starmer blamed the ULEZ policy for the by-election defeat, and before the vote his party had already moved to scale back plans to launch a green fund if it comes to power. Labour has also said it wouldn’t repeal the anti-protest law, merely ‘rectify’ some issues with it, while Starmer has also condemned Just Stop Oil protesters, calling them ‘contemptible’.

It’s a long time since the UK’s superpower heyday, and Brexit has further diminished its influence, but what the UK does matters when it comes to climate action. It isn’t only a recent COP host and a member of the High-Ambition Coalition of states urging stronger climate commitments. It’s also one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, a member of the G7, the G20 and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, leader of the Commonwealth group of 56 states – many of them on the frontlines of climate impacts – and, despite recent cutbacks, still among the biggest state providers of development aid.

Climate leadership from the UK, rather than a political race to the bottom, could make a huge difference. Stopping the restriction of civil society and enabling it to articulate climate demands would be a good place to start.


  • The UK government should drop its plans to allow the extraction of further oil and gas and ensure it meets emissions cuts targets.
  • The UK Labour Party should commit to reforming anti-protest laws and ending all new oil and gas extraction should it win the next general election.
  • Civil society should work to combat climate and environmental disinformation in the forthcoming UK general election campaign.

Cover photo by Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images