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Paid To Pollute

Jeremy Cox, 65, from Woodchurch, near Tenterden, standing outside the Royal Courts of Justice. (Copyright www.mike kemp photography.com)
Jeremy Cox, 65, from Woodchurch, near Tenterden: The court hearing will begin on Wednesday at the Royal Courts of Justice (Copyright www.mike kemp photography.com)

Challenging the Oil and Gas Authority

In the week the Paid to Pollute campaign takes their legal challenge against the Oil and Gas Authority and the government to the high court, Isabelle Veysey sits down with one of the claimants to find out what led them to become part of this historic case. 

It’s the not-so-swinging-seventies: Donna Summer’s I Feel Love is rippling through the air, causing flares to flap as the wind blows chiffon scarves one way and ties from wrap dresses the other. Jeremy Cox, a new graduate, has just begun working at an oil refinery. He doesn’t yet know, while he spends his spare time handing out Greenpeace flyers, that his job is playing a direct role in the catastrophic warming of the earth.

In closed buildings, behind closed doors, Exxon CEOs are being briefed on this exact issue. In the depths of the ocean a supertanker is measuring carbon dioxide in the water.

65-Year-Old Climate Activist

Jeremy Cox sits before me. As a retired 65-year-old he does not embody the popular image of a climate activist; he does not look like the Greta Thunberg or Vanessa Nakates that we are so often used to seeing. His relaxed but composed demeanour, framed by a plain white wall, does not give any hint that this is someone who has a “heck of a responsibility” on their shoulders.

There is no pizazz in this room and as Jeremy talks his words are also without any stars and spangles. But the cardboard sign propped up on a cabinet reading “Paid to Pollute” to the right of him and the slightly pinkish tie-dye top that peeks through his plain hoodie, like a pearl in an oyster, are snippets that allude to the fact that I am currently basking in the glow of someone who many from the climate movement consider a “hero”.

David vs Goliath

Next week Jeremy, as the Extinction Rebellion (XR) claimant, along with two others, Mikaela Loach and Kairin van Sweeden, will seek to find that both Kwasi Kwarteng, the Secretary of State at the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and the Oil and Gas Authority (OGA) have acted unlawfully in a hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice on 8 and 9 December. Since signing the Paris Agreement, the UK government has paid out £4 billion of public money to North Sea oil and gas companies.

The claimants’ case therefore hopes to highlight that the government has actually been propping up fossil fuels rather than leaving them in the ground, at a detriment to the UK’s economy and its Net Zero ambitions.

Paid to Pollute

“The figure is actually more like £13 billon,” Jeremy points out, “when you add in all the other subsidies the oil companies have received. The OGA changed the definition to suit themselves of what maximise economic recovery (MER) of oil and gas from the UK continental shelf actually means.”

In effect, this definition has created a sort of loophole where the OGA are able to ignore the subsidies the government gives them in the form of handouts and tax reliefs when calculating their economic viability for the UK. This has made the North Sea the most profitable place in the world for oil companies to carry out their exploration and extraction. “That’s not an accident – it’s deliberate government policy.” 

That is the first point of law the trio hope to win. The second relates directly to Kwasi Kwarteng for his “irrationality” at signing up to a Sixth Carbon Budget, the Paris Climate Agreement, and Net Zero, while also carrying on “bunging billions of pounds to the oil industry.”

“Irrationality” is the word the lawyers, Leigh Day, who are representing the Paid to Pollute case, have chosen. But this is one of the few moments while Jeremy talks where his composed mask slightly gives way, where his face tells me that perhaps that isn’t the word he would use. The only other time is when he talks about a WhatsApp he received from his son, saying how proud he was of his dad.

Keeping a Stiff Upper Lip

For the most part though, Jeremy assumes a sort of automatic state of steadiness and reserved emotion, which is in complete opposition to the heavy topic he surrounds himself with. It is actually refreshing to hear someone talk about this issue in such a stripped-back way. This gift is something he is aware of though: “I’m just that sort of person.”

His eyes light up as he wanders for a minute down memory lane and shares with me an anecdote about a previous boss who “blew up” when Jeremy “wasn’t wailing and screaming” at an extremely stressful situation. “How are you not falling apart?” He thought it meant I didn’t care. But it didn’t mean that at all. It just meant actually by not falling apart I could make things happen.”

History of a Climate Activist

Jeremy has been “concerned about the environment” since the early 1970s. He joined Greenpeace shortly after its formation and was still a member when he started to work for an Esso oil refinery in the mid 1970s. (Although he assures me he wasn’t “active” in the sense of being a “spicy action-eer” – no climbing on any oil rigs).  

He himself doesn’t know how that happened but he presumes that “either Esso didn’t care or their vetting procedures weren’t great.” It’s also remarkable that this “hero” to the climate movement might actually have been part of the, as Jeremy calls it, “evil-climate-warming-machine.”

“The difference was that in those days it was much more about pollution and direct harm than the slightly less direct harm of emitting greenhouse gases (GHGs) and letting the planet warm.”

“Don’t Mention the Climate Crisis!”

Whilst the CEOs and the movers-and-shakers of Big Oil were in the backrooms trying to hide their findings, their workers were none-the-wiser to the situation.

“The hugely disappointing thing is that as employees we didn’t have a clue that Exxon had known since 1959 about the global warming effects of GHGs and the overwhelming contribution of fossil fuels towards that. They didn’t tell anyone about it. They just used the information they had to lobby against anything which would mitigate it, and that’s still going on to an extent with greenwashing.”

Jeremy joined XR, like Greenpeace, shortly after it was formed, when his daughter convinced him to. He remembers feeling like: “I don’t mind if I get arrested at this point in my life. I’ll go and get stuck in.” And get stuck in he did.

He became the Kent co-ordinator and has been part of many XR actions, including the recent “G7 Make the Wave” campaign. The pandemic, although “frustrating” for an activist, was actually the push that Jeremy needed to pursue a different method of direct action. 

See You in Court

At the beginning he was the only claimant in the case, having had a conversation with the XR legal team who wanted to do something “a bit different.” “They wanted to go to court but on the other side of the courtroom for a change,” and again Jeremy thought: “Why not?”

After Loach and Van Sweeden came on board, the burden of the case became less intense. “It certainly lessened the focus on me. Being a claimant in one of these things is a heck of a responsibility. There’s quite a lot of having to keep the message right and having to talk to journalists and take part in documentaries and photoshoots and all that stuff.”

I guess that includes talking to me, but Jeremy says this in such a matter-of-fact way that I don’t find this statement offensive. Nor do I when he says: “Write out Extinction Rebellion in full the first time with XR in brackets and from then use XR on its own.” It’s not pedantic or school-teacherly, but quite amusing and sweet. 

Bringing Greater Public Awareness

Although he is “excited” about the hearing, realistically he is aware that “what flows from it might be very little.” The government can just say, “Thanks very much Court for telling us we’ve made a mistake. We’ll put the mistake right and change the law.”

But either way this is an opportunity for Jeremy and the team to “bring greater public awareness to the fact that the government is throwing billions” of public money at fossil fuels. Judging by the fact the Paid to Pollute petition received 7,300 signatures on its launch day, it seems that this team has already achieved this.

He knows it will not be he who feels the brunt of today’s actions (or lack of them), but the generations to come. He paints a dire landscape of what we might face: “If it gets really shitty it’s going to get really really shitty. There will be war and there will be huge forced migration around the world as people can’t live in the places where they have always lived.”

An End Is In Sight

But, like an immovable rock that has been battered by the harsh extremities of ravenous seas, Jeremy sits, unwavering, days before the hearing. For now he must wait for his day in court. The verdict is unknown, but one thing is certain: his wife will be glad to have him back doing jobs around the house. 

While Donna Summer filled the air, a young Jeremy, as he worked at Esso, encouraged people to give donations to Greenpeace. Fast forward to 2021 and Greenpeace is now one of many organisations supporting the case against the same oil and gas industry which once hired Jeremy.

Irony really is bliss.