Rishi Sunak: whose side are you on?

The prime minister is responding to this summer's climate disasters with a sales pitch for the fossil fuel industry. But when the election comes round, there’ll be no hiding behind flimsy messaging.


August is often known as ‘silly season’ in the UK media, a time when politicians pop off on holiday and significant column inches are dedicated to celestial apparitions on slices of toast or touching tributes to famous fish (who knew Britain had a “best-loved carp” called Benson?).

So I had reason to pause for thought as Greenpeace, the organisation I run, was splashed all over the August front pages for our climate protest at the Prime Minister’s house last week. Are we this season’s toasted deity? Are we the “plonkers”, in one of the more generous comments from a government minister? Some people obviously think so. And I’m yet to see the heartfelt tributes that Benson the carp got.

But then, it’s not really a typical August is it? Most of us have sat watching haunting images of holidaymakers and locals fleeing wildfires on our TV screens. Every heatmap of Europe is scorched crimson. Extreme weather events are destroying communities and claiming lives and livelihoods across Asia and Africa. The phrase “the hottest on record” is starting to lose meaning, like repeating the same word over and over again until it sounds incomprehensible.

People are scared and with good cause. But we have to push through that fear. We must be driven to action. And none more so than the Prime Minister.

Unfortunately, the action Rishi Sunak has arrived at is to mount an unconvincing salesman’s pitch for the fossil fuel industry, the same industry which got us into this mess in the first place. His opening offer: a two-for-one on new oil and gas licences and flimsy spin. ‘Ensuring our energy security from tyrants like Putin’ and ‘lowering people’s bills during a cost-of-living crisis’ must have sounded like great arguments on the Number 10 whiteboard, until they realised the inconvenience of them being utter garbage. But it hasn’t stopped Sunak peddling these lines to the public in wilful disdain for next year’s voters.

“Every heatmap of Europe is scorched crimson. Sunak's response? A two-for-one on new oil and gas licences.”
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The truth is he’s flogging our future to oil companies who’ll sell what they produce – which won’t happen for a long time – on the international market, doing nothing to make us more energy secure nor impact our sky high bills. It’s reckless, it’s costly and it’s jeopardising our future.

Worse, Rishi Sunak is telling the public that this will all stay in line with our proposed climate action – reducing our emissions to net-zero by 2050. This contradictory promise is impossible to achieve. It’s not about completely turning off the taps but, to reach this legally binding target, there can be no new oil and gas. The UN secretary general has made this abundantly clear, as have the government’s own climate advisors and International Energy Agency. Sunak is just choosing to ignore them.

And, in response to our peaceful protest at his mansion last week, aiming – rather successfully – to draw attention to the incompatibility of Sunak’s plan to “max out” North Sea oil and gas while tackling the climate crisis as the world burns, he’s told his government to ignore us too.

A letter to the prime minister

The government has said it will cease engagement with Greenpeace following our peaceful protest last week. Greenpeace UK's co-executive directors Areeba Hamid and Will McCallum have sent this response to Rishi Sunak.

Burying your head in the sand isn’t going to make the climate crisis go away. It’s precisely because the government has effectively shut the door to civil society groups, like Greenpeace, as well as ignoring warnings from experts and advisors that we need to protest in the way that we do.

“Burying your head in the sand isn’t going to make the climate crisis go away. It’s because the government has shut the door to civil society that we need to protest in the way we do.”
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The bunker mentality on display from Sunak and his current government is deeply damaging – cutting ties with Greenpeace isn’t going to help.

Just a couple of years ago the UK was hosting the world’s climate summit in Glasgow and playing a major role on the world stage. Now the Prime Minister is scoping out which green policies he can dump and ordering a drilling frenzy in the North Sea. Never mind that we’re becoming a laughing stock for international athletes getting sick en masse for swimming in our sewage-ridden waters.

Now, some people draw the line at respecting the privacy of the Prime Minister’s home. While we carried out a safe activity on a property we knew to be empty, we do acknowledge that there’s a good faith debate to be had about protest and privacy. Though John Prescott and David Cameron may feel a little aggrieved that they didn’t elicit as much sympathy when they faced similar protests some years ago.

As an organisation we’ve engaged with governments of different stripes for decades. But this government is increasingly ignoring scientific experts, civil society and indeed public opinion on everything from the sewage polluting our waters to the climate crisis:  one of the most serious issues of our time.

And here’s the problem for Rishi Sunak: people actually care about this. More than four in five people are rightly concerned about climate change. Rather than desperately attempting to score cheap political points in an attempt to win a few extra votes at the next election, how about acting in line with what the vast majority of people think and investing in home insulation to bring people’s bills down? How about ramping up renewable energy sources that will actually give us energy security and have the additional advantage of not hurtling us towards a planetary precipice?

Because those are the fundamentals. The vast majority of people in this country want warmer homes, lower bills and a climate safe future. When the election comes round, there’ll be no hiding behind flimsy messaging. There’ll just be stark questions. Has the Prime Minister delivered for people or for oil companies? Has he helped to create a safer world for my children? Whose side is he on?

What's next?