Insulate Britain: blocking roads will alienate some people – but it’s still likely to be effective

Insulate Britain is a campaign group urging government action on greenhouse gas emissions and fuel poverty in the country’s housing stock. Their methods have recently landed them in the news, as activists blocked parts of the M25 – the motorway surrounding London – by sitting on slip roads and in the carriageway until their removal by police.

The long delays their protests caused drew outrage from motorists and much of the media that reported it. So what is the purpose of this kind of disruption, made popular in recent years by Extinction Rebellion (XR)?

The American sociologist Charles Tilly argued that all protest actions were what he called WUNC displays: shows of worthiness, unity, numbers and commitment. The goal was not to stop or make something happen directly, but to demonstrate the strength and appeal and values of the protesters, so that both those in power and the general public would listen to their message.

Direct action groups tend to be slightly different from traditional social movements: their actions typically carry higher risks, and they tend to have fewer organisational resources. While they are very committed, being “respectable” isn’t necessarily so important, and the actions are typically carried out by relatively small numbers of people. Creating disruption helps make up for these shortcomings.

Novelty and attention

Protest is the language of people denied access to power – it is designed to draw attention, to be seen and heard. It is much more likely for protesters to achieve something if they inconvenience others in the process, rather than (as more established groups tend to do) leading a march or a demo. Many activists in Britain drew that lesson from the massive anti-Iraq war protests of 2003, which mobilised so many people and yet achieved little.

Recently, researchers have shown this to be true by comparing various kinds of protest over the past decade. Strikes, sit-ins, occupations and blockades have proven more likely to achieve some degree of success than less disruptive protests such as marches, demos or petitions.

One reason for the efficiency of disruption is that it is much more likely to provide press coverage, particularly when it is novel. It’s instructive to compare the Insulate Britain protests with the recent Extinction Rebellion protests. In April 2019, XR were able to garner widespread media and political attention by occupying central London for nearly two weeks. Since then however, doing the same thing has brought diminishing returns: the police are better prepared, the actions are less disruptive, they mobilise fewer people, and the media has turned elsewhere.

Yet people stopping traffic on the M25 has attracted attention. And the small group of activists have managed to get their demands – insulate all social housing by 2025 and all homes by 2030 – printed in national newspapers. Their clear demands are an evolution of XR’s preference for leaving details of what policies are needed to tackle climate change to a future citizens’ assembly.

A worker in blue overalls rolls out wool in an attic.
A nationwide retrofit and insulation campaign could slash emissions and fuel poverty.

Is annoying people worthwhile?

Critics say that blocking roads hurts vulnerable people. In this case, talk radio hosts highlighted delays to one girl’s taxi journey to her special needs school. In the case of anti-fracking activists who blocked the A583 in Lancashire in July 2017, the trial judge argued that the inconvenience caused – the police had to set up a contraflow – justified sending three of them to jail on a public nuisance charge.

But as any motorist can tell you, these things happen every day. If you drive a car to work, you’ll know how often you are delayed, by accidents, roadworks, sheer weight of traffic.

Other critics will point to the confused logic of blocking roads for the cause of insulating homes. There is, indeed, little connection between the two, unlike activists occupying the Science Museum to protest Shell’s sponsorship of its climate change exhibition, or blockades of fracking sites. But then again, there isn’t much of a direct connection between marching through London and demanding that British forces don’t invade Iraq, either.

Where groups engage in more indirect forms of disruption, it’s necessary to do more behind the scenes for the protest to make sense, including making the link explicit for onlookers. Insulate Britain held banners with their name and logo – a quick search on the web takes you to a website outlining what the group wants. It is, in other words, all about the target audience, the public, which activists reach through the media. Nothing will be achieved there and then. Britain’s homes will not be insulated as a result of this particular protest.

Of course, disruptive protest annoys people, and protesters sometimes lose support because of this. YouGov measured public support for XR recently and found that nearly half of those polled have a negative opinion of the group. But broad popularity isn’t all that relevant. Direct action groups aren’t running for elections. They don’t need to be supported by a majority. At least 73% of those polled had heard of XR – more than Momentum (33%), Stonewall (50%), ActionAid (60%), or the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (64%).

What Insulate Britain want is to highlight political inertia and force the government to take action. And it is unlikely that people will be against insulating homes just because they get annoyed at protesters. An estimated four million UK households currently live in fuel poverty. Insulating homes is an essential part of lowering Britain’s emissions – and saving British households a lot of money. So, while Insulate Britain may well not be popular, their strategy appears to be to take the hit among some groups who might be irked by their methods in order to get home insulation in the news and up the government’s agenda.The Conversation


This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Dr Oscar Berglund, Lecturer in International Public and Social Policy, University of Bristol and Graeme Hayes, Reader in Political Sociology, Aston University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Tackling urban landslides in an uncertain future

One of the challenges of the 21st century is how to reconcile global urban growth with the prevention and mitigation of environmental disasters, such as those caused by landslides. Every year 300 million people are exposed to landslides worldwide, with over 4,000 fatalities, 250,000 of people affected, and billions of US dollars of economic damage. However, impacts might be worse in the future for two main reasons. First, severe precipitations might become more frequent under climate change, causing more rainfall-triggered landslides. Second, growing urban population will lead more people to live in areas exposed to landslides globally, and in particular in developing countries where low-income dwellers are starting to overcrowd landslide-prone areas such as steep slopes. With more hurricanes to come and more people at risk, understanding where and when landslides might occur is becoming increasingly crucial.

Current predictions are too uncertain to support decisions

One method to predict landslides in the future is to look at landslides in the past. The analysis of historical records allows the identification of those hillslopes that have failed in the past. Currently stable hillslopes where similar conditions exist (for example, similar slope gradients) are ‘tagged’ with high landslide probability. These areas might be then excluded for construction development or might be the first to be alerted when a severe precipitation is expected.

This approach to landslide prediction is, however, often insufficient. Landslides and rainfall records as well as data on hillslope properties are often affected by large errors or unavailable in sufficient detail. In addition, what happened in the past might not be representative of what may happen in the future, making historical records less useful for long-term projections. Climate and socio-economic models can be used to build scenarios of how rainfall patters and cities might look like in the future. Unfortunately, these scenarios can vary significantly because they depend on highly uncertain factors such as future carbon emissions. As a result, landslide estimates can also be very different and sometimes even contradictory – some predicting an increase and others a decrease in landslides occurrence – undermining their practical use for risk management.

From ‘predict then act’ to ‘act now with low regrets’

Instead of trying to predict how climate and urban expansion will evolve in the future, I used a different approach centred on decision making. I ask the question: how much climate and/or urban expansion needs to change before landslide hazard significantly increases?

The scientific method behind my analysis (Bozzolan et al. 2020, NHESS) first generates thousands of synthetic but realistic hillslopes representations of the study area. Then, it imposes hypothetical scenarios of increasing rainfall severities and urban expansion, also considering different construction features that could affect slope stability (for example, the presence or not of adequate slope drainage such as roof gutters on houses).

Finally, it uses a computer model to assess the stability of these virtual hillslopes, generating a new synthetic library of landslide records. By exploring the library is now possible to identify those combinations of rainfall and urban development conditions (e.g., with or without roof gutters) for which hillslopes are most likely to fail. ‘Low-regret’ mitigation actions will be those that perform well across scenarios and therefore should be prioritised even if future rainfall and urban predictions remain unknown.

A practical tool for decision makers

This new method which explores many ‘what if’ scenarios is a useful tool for decision makers in landslide risk management and reduction. For example, figure 1 shows how a map of landslide probability in Saint Lucia (Eastern Caribbean) might look like if the severity of a destructive rainstorm such as the 2010 Hurricane Tomas were to increase under climate change or if unregulated housing expanded on slopes susceptible to failure. The analysis also shows that when both scenarios are included landslide probability disproportionally increases, revealing that ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’. This information could be used to assess the risk and damages associated with each scenario and to identify low-regret nation-wide risk reduction and risk transfer strategies.

Figure 1: Maps of landslide probability in Saint Lucia under different ‘what if’ scenarios. The percentage (+%) indicates the increase of areas with high landslide probability.

The same method can also be applied to quantify the cost-benefit ratio of different landslide mitigation options, such as improving urban drainage or tree planting at the community/household scale. In Freetown (Sierra Leone), for example, I collaborated with the engineering firm Arup to identify those landslide hazard mitigation actions that would lead to the largest reduction in landslide probability for certain locations or types of slopes, and should thus be prioritised. The information generated through this analysis not only provides evidence to governments and investors for informing urban planning, but it might also encourage landslide probability from low to high micro-insurance in disaster prevention, where insurers offer lower premiums to reward risk-reducing behaviours.


This blog is written by Cabot Institute for the Environment member, Dr Elisa Bozzolan from the School of Civil Engineering at the University of Bristol.

Time for policymakers to make policies (and to learn from those who are)

From a social scientist’s point of view, the recent IPCC report and the reception it has received are a bit odd. The report certainly reflects a huge amount of work, its message is vital, and it’s great so many people are hearing it. But not much in the report updates how we think about climate change. We’ve known for a while that people are changing the climate, and that how much more the climate changes will depend on the decisions we make.

What decisions? The Summary for Policymakers— the scientists’ memo to the people who will make the really important choices—doesn’t say. The words “fossil fuel”, “oil”, and “coal” never even appear. Nor “regulation”, “ban”, “subsidy”, or “tax”. The last five pages of the 42-page Summary are entitled “Limiting Future Climate Change”; but while “policymakers” appear, “policies” do not.

This is not the fault of the authors; Working Group I’s remit does not include policy recommendations. Even Working Group III (focused on mitigation) is not allowed to advocate for specific choices. Yet every IPCC contributor knows the most important question is which emission pathway we take, and that will depend on what policies we choose.

Which is why it’s so odd that big policy issues and announcements get comparatively little airtime (and research funding). For example, in June, the European Union codified in law the goal of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions 55% by 2030 (relative to 1990), and last month the European Commission presented a set of ambitious proposals for hitting that target. As a continent, Europe is already leading the world in emission reductions (albeit starting from a high level, with large cumulative historical emissions), and showing the rest of the world how to organize high-income societies in low-carbon ways. But the Commission’s proposals—called “Fit for 55”—have gone largely under the radar, not only outside of the EU but even within it.

The proposals are worth examining. At least according to the Commission, they will make the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions consistent with its commitments under the Paris Agreement. (Independent assessments generally agree that while a 55% reduction by 2030 won’t hit the Paris Agreement’s 1.5˚ target, it would be a proportionate contribution to the goal of limiting global heating to no more than 2˚.) And they will build on the EU’s prior reduction of its territorial emissions by 24% between 1990 and 2019.

A change of -24% over that period, and -18% for consumption emissions, is in one sense disappointing, given that climate scientists were warning about the need for action even before 1990. But this achievement, inadequate though it may be, far exceeds those of other high per-capita emitters, like the U.S. (+14%), Canada (+21%), or Australia (+54%).

The most notable reductions have been in the areas of electricity generation and heavy industry—sectors covered by the EU’s emissions trading system (ETS). Emissions from buildings have not declined as much, and those from transportation (land, air, and marine) have risen. Several of the Fit for 55 proposals therefore focus on these sectors. Maritime transport is to be incorporated into the ETS; free permits for aviation are to be eliminated; and a new, separate ETS for fuels used in buildings and land transport is to be established. Sales of new cars and trucks with internal combustion engines will end as of 2035, and increased taxes will apply to fuels for transport, heat, and electricity.

The Commission also proposes to cut emissions under the ETS by 4.2% each year (rather than 2.2% currently); expand the share of electricity sourced from renewables; and set a stricter (lower) target for the total amount of energy the EU will use by 2030—for the sake of greater energy efficiency.

All of this is going to be hugely contentious, and it will take a year or two at least for the Commission, the member-states, and the European Parliament to negotiate a final version. Corporate lobbying will shape the outcome, as will public opinion (paywall).

Two of the most interesting proposals are meant to head off opposition from industry and voters. A carbon border adjustment mechanism will put a price on greenhouse gases emitted by the production abroad of selected imports into the EU (provisionally cement, fertiliser, iron, steel, electricity, and aluminium). This will protect European producers from competitors subject to weaker rules. A social climate fund, paid for out of the new ETS, will compensate low-income consumers and small businesses for the increased costs of fossil fuels—thereby preventing any rise in fuel poverty.

No country is doing enough to mitigate emissions. But Fit for 55 represents the broadest, most detailed emissions reductions plan in the world—and, in some form, it will be implemented. Decision-makers everywhere should be studying, and making, policies like this.


This guest blog is by friend of Cabot Insitute for the Environment and PLOS Climate Academic Editor Malcolm Fairbrother. Malcolm is a Professor of Sociology at Umeå University (Sweden), the Institute for Futures Studies (Stockholm), and University of Graz (Austria). Twitter: @malcolmfair. This blog has been reposted with kind permission from Malcolm Fairbrother. View the original blog.

Top image credit: Cold Dawn, Warm World by Mark McNestry, CC BY 2.0