As dawn broke over St Michael’s Mount, Cornwall on Saturday, June 5, a small band of people walked onto a neighbouring Marazion beach and headed straight for the sea.
For anyone watching at a distance, what happened next may have looked like an early morning campfire, but the flames that appeared next to the group weren’t burning firewood, but a small wooden boat.
Dressed up as Boris Johnson and a fossil fuel executive, the two people pushed the burning boat into the water while another stood taking pictures.
The boat’s flaming sail read: “Your children’s future.”
Engineered by Ocean Rebellion, a sea-focused arm of Extinction Rebellion, the demonstration was a protest against the UK government’s failure to act appropriately on climate change, says Rob Higgs, a local artist and co-founder of the organisation.
“We went down at about four in the morning and snuck into the water knowing we had a few minutes before the authorities arrived and had a problem with it,” he said.
Having alleged harassment by the police in late May, Rob anticipated another run-in at the protest - but this time, nobody came.
The demonstration went off without a hitch, with the striking photos of the protest appearing in national media outlets up and down the country. The campaign was Ocean Rebellion’s strong message to G7 leaders who have gathered in Cornwall to discuss, among other things, tackling the climate crisis.
This small, theatrical demonstration is just one of many protests unfolding in usually-sleepy seaside towns across Cornwall as talks between G7 leaders have kicked off in Carbis Bay.
Extinction Rebellion alone has gathered more than 1,000 protesters for a “sound the alarm” march, Surfers Against Sewage plan a “paddle out” for ocean health in Falmouth, while a coalition of protest groups under the banner #resistG7 have planned three days of protest on the climate and the government’s controversial policing bill.
“We’ve had 30 years of meetings about climate change and still atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases are rising,” says Melissa Carrington, environmental activist and media coordinator for the south-west arm of Extinction Rebellion.
The group’s G7 protests will be non-violent, but “disruptive”, says Melissa, with the aim of “sounding the alarm” over the climate crisis and climate justice for poorer nations who will suffer global warming’s effects most severely.
“We’re there to say that we need to do more - we need to cut [emissions] further and faster, and we need to pay for our fair share of the costs of mitigating climate change,” she says.
Melissa’s frustration with the slow pace of climate action is shared by Rob, who says that he became involved in environmental activism through frustrations with the “formal channels” of effecting change.
“I’ve spent decades writing to my MP, signing petitions and becoming more and more disillusioned as all I get is platitudes and passive aggressive dismissal from our Tory MP who claims they have it all under control,” he said.
In 2020, Rob launched Oceans Rebellion with his partner Sophie, using art and theatrics to produce striking visual demonstrations urging action on the climate crisis.
“The formal channels aren’t working at effecting change at the pace that we need to.
“We’ve got to move to direct action and civil disobedience,” he added.
Ocean Rebellion’s next G7 protest will see the group take a flotilla of 100 small boats to the large cruise ship accommodating 1,000 police officers which is currently docked in Falmouth. Using a portable projector, the group will beam messages onto the side of the 202m-long vessel warning of ocean degradation.
Protesters wish to see concrete action on climate from the G7, says Rob. Currently, the UK is still spending 32 times more on fossil fuels than renewables in spite of, says Rob, “promises that the country is going to ‘build back better’” from the pandemic.
Melissa also draws attention to what she sees as hypocrisy - “all talk, but no action” - from global governments over the climate crisis.
“There are baby steps in the right direction. The fact that we have Biden in the White House who seems interested in solving the crisis is positive...but much of what I’m seeing is all just posturing,” she said.
“I don’t think Boris, or other leaders get it,” says Rob, citing a “lack of faith” in the current system’s ability to act on the climate crisis.
He adds, however, that the response to the coronavirus pandemic has given him hope of material change.
“The Covid response makes it clear that once the public fully understands the severity and necessity for drastic action, people are prepared to make massive lifestyle shifts.
“Boris effectively banned Christmas, and people went along with it for the sake of public health,” he said.
The pandemic has also shown, says Melissa, the vast amount of money that can be made available for dealing with public health crises.
“The 100 billion that was promised for the climate in the Paris Agreement needs to be doubled or tripled - it’s a pittance compared with the sort of cash that was being flashed during the pandemic,” she said.
If not for moral or public health reasons, it may, in the end, be money that forces governments’ hands over the crisis, says Rob, with the costs of not acting on the climate far exceeding those of spending now.
His hope is that raising awareness through protest will help the “narrative” around the climate crisis begin to shift, with the public realising that “living with a lighter touch on nature isn’t necessarily a sacrifice.”
“Covid showed that once everyone stopped working so much and just slowed down, walked and went on bike rides, a lot of people realised how lovely life at a slower pace is.”