Members of the Just Stop Oil environmental protest group are seen as they block traffic during a demonstration in Whitehall on Nov. 06, 2023 in London, England. Credit - Leon Neal–Getty Images
You may have seen the headlines: Tomato soup thrown on Van Gogh’s famous Sunflowers painting, vegan chocolate cake launched in the face of King Charles III’s Madame Tussauds wax figure and protesters interrupting a live performance of musical Les Misérables.
These viral protests were the work of Just Stop Oil, a British activist group opposed to new U.K. fossil fuel projects in order to combat climate change, that has garnered heaps of attention and ignited both praise and criticism in less than two years of activity.
With the group making headlines in the news again, here’s what you need to know about the climate activist organization.
What is Just Stop Oil and what does the group want?
Just Stop Oil describes itself as a “nonviolent civil resistance group demanding the U.K. Government stop licensing all new oil, gas and coal projects.”
In its campaign description and public research document, the group claims that extracting new fossil fuels “will kill our children and condemn humanity to oblivion” and human-induced climate change “will destroy human civilisation unless emergency action is taken to rapidly reduce our Greenhouse Gas Emissions to zero in a very short timescale.”
The group aims to achieve this by switching U.K. government subsidies for oil and gas industries toward clean energy, public transportation and insulation to reduce energy consumption. It calls on the government to transition to sustainable energy by “creating millions of proper skilled jobs and protecting the rights of workers in sunset industries” or wait for the “unavoidable collapse” of society.
Who is behind the group?
Just Stop Oil is a non-hierarchical coalition of organizers, scientists, lawyers and former oil industry workers who operate in autonomous blocs with no formal leadership, Indigo Rumbelow, a public face of the organization, told The Guardian last year. She said the group was formed in December 2021, although it went public in February 2022.
The group’s “adviser,” according to the same article, identified elsewhere as a co-founder, is Roger Hallam. He has said he was an organic farmer in Wales before turning to activism. Hallam also founded similar climate protest group Extinction Rebellion.
Just Stop Oil gets its funding via donations from the public, private individuals and grants. From March to August 2023, the group received 51% of its funding from public donations, 21% from donations over £20,000, 16% from green energy industrialist Dale Vince, 10% from Hollywood filmmaker Adam McKay and 2% from the U.S.-based Climate Emergency Fund, the group told TIME in an emailed statement on Nov. 11. The group did not provide total numbers in donations received.
Vince, who wrote in The Guardian that he gave the group more than £340,000, announced he was withdrawing his financial support in Oct. 2023, arguing change at the ballot box was more effective than protest and urging people “to vote to save the planet.”
The Climate Emergency Fund was started with funding from heiress Aileen Getty, the granddaughter of oil tycoon J. Paul Getty, who said in an op-ed for The Guardian she was proud to support Just Stop Oil.
The group’s website says it uses its money for recruitment, training, capacity building, education, refreshments, accommodation and travel costs.
What are the group’s most prolific protests to date?
Just Stop Oil set an ultimatum for the U.K. government to meet its demands by March 14, 2022. When the government did not, the group began staging protests and disruptions to call attention to their cause—from climbing on oil tankers to interrupting the British Academy Film Awards (BAFTAs) red carpet event.
In some of the most high-profile incidents, two group members were photographed launching chocolate cake at King Charles III's Madame Tussauds wax figure in October 2022. The pair denied criminal charges, but were convicted at trial and ordered by a judge to pay £3,500 ($4,278) as compensation to the museum to repair the figure in January. The group has also repeatedly targeted artwork in museums, inspiring similar acts of protest around Europe.
In July 2022, five activists were arrested after super-gluing their hands to the frame of a replica of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper painting in London’s Royal Academy, with one spray-painting “NO NEW OIL” on the wall.
Last October, two people in Just Stop Oil’s bright orange T-shirts opened cans of tomato soup and threw the liquid on to Van Gogh’s Sunflowers painting at the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square before gluing their hands to the wall. The painting was not damaged as it was covered by glass.
Why is Just Stop Oil in the news once again?
On Oct. 4, 2023, Just Stop Oil interrupted a live performance of West End musical Les Misérables, causing for the production to be halted.
On Nov. 6, two protesters were arrested after smashing the glass protecting the 1600s-era Rokeby Venus painting by Diego Velazquez at the National Gallery. The same painting was slashed by suffragette Mary Richardson in 1914 in protest.
In the most recent controversial incident on Nov. 8, protesters laid down on Waterloo Bridge in London. Police accused the group’s protest of causing a traffic jam that impeded an ambulance with blue lights on. The ambulance driver told The Telegraph he was responding to a “life or death emergency” and pleaded with police to let him through.
In posts on X (formerly Twitter), Just Stop Oil accused police of blocking the ambulance. In another post and an emailed statement to TIME, the group said its policy is to move to let ambulances with blue lights through but added that “nevertheless, we accept that our actions do cause disruption.”
“There are a limited range of options available to ordinary people to resist government criminality,” the statement read.
The group said it was too soon for freedom of information requests to show whether there were ambulance delays in this incident, but pointed to past requests, where the group was similarly accused, but they say no ambulance delays were shown.
The group said on its website that it tracked more than 300 arrests of its members from Oct. 30 to Nov. 11 amid a string of protests.
In an update shared on Nov. 8, police said they’d made 219 arrests and charged 98 activists during that time period. "Ultimately it is Londoners who are bearing the brunt and cost of Just Stop Oil’s disruption," the Metropolitan Police wrote.
Just Stop Oil is also in the midst of planning a "People vs. Oil" protest march in London on Nov. 18. "Everyone is invited—come send a clear message that we won't stand for new oil and gas," the group posted on X.
Are the group’s actions having an impact?
The U.K. government has moved in the opposite direction of Just Stop Oil’s goal—to halt the licensing of new British fossil fuel facilities—since the climate activist group began.
Under Conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, the U.K. government has said it will license new oil and gas drilling in the North Sea, which was affirmed in the King’s Speech, the monarch’s annual address to the British Parliament, on Nov. 7.
Sunak’s government said that the move was to ensure British energy independence, especially when the country saw prices skyrocket during the Ukraine war because of its dependence on Russian energy sources.
To try to assuage climate concerns, the government said that each annual licensing round will only take place if key tests are met supporting the transition to net zero emissions. Sunak’s government had already watered down policies and pushed back some deadlines to get the country to net zero.
However, change may well be on the horizon. Sunak’s Conservative Party, which cycled through two other prime ministers in a chaotic 2022, has suffered defeats in local elections and could struggle in the general election.
Keir Starmer, the head of the Labour Party, had said in June that he would stop new licensing for oil and gas fields if in power, but in August he clarified he would not end existing or promised licenses to ensure a managed energy transition and called Just Stop Oil’s demands “contemptible.”
When asked whether the group’s actions have had an impact, or what it would take to do so, Just Stop Oil claimed in its emailed statement that with the exception of the Conservatives, its demand is supported by major British political parties, the U.N. and other international bodies. “We have no doubt that we will win,” the group said. “It is a matter of when, not if.”
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