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via Instagram (@gndrising)

These young climate activists challenged Rishi Sunak on oil fields

In response, the chancellor asked them to stop filming

Earlier this month, Rishi Sunak attended the South West Conservative Party conference. Also in attendance were climate justice activists 25-year-old Sophie Whinney, 23-year-old Prina Sumaria, and 33-year-old Madeleine Greenhalgh.

Whinney, Sumaria, and Greenhalgh took the opportunity to challenge Sunak on the recent approval of six North Sea oil and gas fields. Speaking at a press conference in early February, Sunak said: "We have resources in the North Sea, and we want to encourage investment in that because we're going to need natural gas as part of our transition to getting to net zero. And in the process of getting from here to there, if we can get investment in the North Sea that supports British jobs, that’s a good thing.”

Is it though? The decision reeks of hypocrisy: mere months ago at the COP26 summit in Glasgow, Sunak assured the world that he would make the UK the world’s “first net-zero financial centre” and pledged to deliver “fresher water to drink” and “cleaner air to breathe” for “everyone, everywhere”. As new gas and oil fields will only increase pollution and worsen the climate crisis, it’s unclear how Sunak intends to make good on these promises.

This alarming U-turn hasn’t escaped the attention of youth climate activism group Green New Deal Rising. “We found out that there was going to be a Tory conference in the South West, and we thought that was a great opportunity to go and talk to some Tory MPs and ask them what they’re doing about the climate crisis and to talk to them about the Green New Deal Bill,” Greenhalgh explains. “We booked tickets and went down to the conference and found out pretty soon that Rishi Sunak was going to be their guest of honour.”

“We thought we were going to have to follow him round the corridor and shout questions at him, but actually, he came to each table so we had a chance to have a conversation with him. So we challenged him on why he’s looking to approve new extraction in the North Sea.”

In a video filmed by Whinney and shared last week, Sumaria and Greenhalgh challenged the chancellor on his decision to back oil and gas extraction in the North Sea. “I was just wondering why you approved new oil fields in a climate emergency?” Sumaria asks Sunak. “Ah right, actually I was talking to one of your colleagues about this before,” Sunak responds. “What’s the answer?” Sumaria presses.

The chancellor answers, “Yeah well, what I was talking about, you know what, because we’re, yeah, let me try and talk to your colleagues first,” as his aide swoops in to swat away the camera.

“I just wanted to ask you, why are you approving oil and gas extraction in the north sea?” Greenhalgh asks in the next clip. “Sorry, why are we…?” Sunak starts, before noticing Whinney filming. “Sorry, are you filming us?” Again, his aide leaps in front of the camera and the video swiftly ends.

“The climate crisis is affecting people now,” Sumaria tells Dazed. “It’s affecting people who are the most vulnerable already. We’re not doing enough to fight the climate crisis even though we’re one of the countries which has contributed the most to it. It really frustrates me, and I am quite angry at this government for their lack of action. That’s why I wanted to go and challenge them directly, because it’s an option that you don’t get very often.”

“The reason I’m angry with people like Rishi Sunak is because he holds huge power in the UK’s action on climate change. He’s the chancellor, he holds the purse strings. He’s a very influential person, so his opinions make a huge difference,” Greenhalgh says. “This government has made a great show of putting the right targets in place and we do welcome that. But people like Rishi Sunak are stopping actual action from taking place. We’ve got the targets, but why have we got a target to run a decarbonised power system by 2025 if the chancellor is then going to approve new oil and gas extraction?”

This isn’t the first time Green New Deal Rising have quizzed the chancellor on his stance on climate change: late last year, activists from the youth-led organisation challenged Sunak on fossil fuels at COP26. That video went viral too, demonstrating how social media can be a powerful tool for starting dialogues about the climate crisis. “We’re doing digital canvassing: instead of knocking on people’s doors, we’re getting to them through social media messaging,” Greenhalgh says. “Our use of social media isn’t only to show the inaction of Rishi Sunak and this government, but it’s also to inspire people and show them why they should get involved,” Sumaria adds.

The activists are unfazed by their critics. Greenhalgh points out the absurdity of people claiming they shouldn’t be ‘harassing’ Sunak. “There’s no way I would be able to get [Rishi Sunak] to talk to me as a citizen at any point in my life. So why on earth shouldn’t I go to the conference and talk to him and civilly ask him a question and hold him to account? Why shouldn’t we be holding politicians to account? Why not? They should be around to answer our questions.” 

Sumaria also highlights the invalidity of arguments that Green New Deal Rising have no solution to the climate crisis. “People say ‘it’s all very well and good, you going to challenge people and calling people to account, but you don’t have a plan.’ But we do!” she says, adding that all three of them also work in the renewable energy industry. “We’re young people who’ve actually got a fully thought out plan for how we achieve this. There’s a bill [The Green New Deal Bill] that’s going through Parliament that Caroline Lucas and Clive Lewis are sponsoring. We’re not just some naïve young people – we’ve got a plan.”