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Climate change activism has dominated the UK's recent protest scene - but will it last?

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Activism special Where next for eco-activism in the UK?

Bibi van der Zee

6th July, 2011

After the failure of the Copenhagen climate talks, the undercover police scandal, the disbanding of Climate Camp - and the sudden rise of UK Uncut - Bibi van der Zee takes the temperature of Britain's green activism movement

Exhaustion set in after Copenhagen. After three years of campaigning ever more intensely, only to be engulfed in the dark sand storm that was the international climate summit in December 2009, you could feel the whole movement subsiding into cramping collapse. 'Copenhagen was kind of a pinnacle, a culmination; people in Climate Camp had been working towards it for a very long time,' says Daniel Garvin, who travelled with Climate Camp to the summit. 'I came back very tired. And during the year afterwards, for Climate Camp at least, a lot of internal politics raised their head. In truth we just weren't very clear about what to do next. And a lot of people took to soul searching.'

Copenhagen, was after all, the culmination of a crescendo of effort by thousands of activists around the world over several years, frantically trying to whip up political will to take action on a crisis that campaigners could see coming ('one of the most concerted pieces of mobilisation ever seen' as Guardian journalist John Vidal describes it).

In 2001 Campaign against Climate Change was founded by Phil Thornhill. In the next few years Thornhill was relieved to see a growing engagement with the subject: 'It felt as if things were finally taking off, I felt very optimistic. After that the NGOs really started talking, and Stop Climate Chaos coalition [the umbrella organisation for co-ordinating action on climate change] emerged, and I feel as if we really accelerated all that.' Direct action group Rising Tide formed at the same time with the slogan 'Carrying out action on the root causes of climate change.' Progress was slow, but movement appeared to be in the right direction.

And then in 2006 a group of activists decided to set up camp beside Drax power station, announcing that 'Shutting down a power station isn’t enough to stop climate change but it’s a start.' It certainly was. Over the next few years Climate Camp snowballed into a colossal national phenomenon; the camp at Heathrow the following year dominated the news agenda for weeks, and Kingsnorth, the following year was equally headline-prone.

At the same time organisations like Rising Tide, Plane Stupid and Climate Rush were carrying off stunts that kept climate change constantly in the papers while Greenpeace managed to confer public legitimacy on the whole campaign when the activists who climbed the chimney of Kingsnorth power station were sensationally cleared of criminal damage by a jury.

By 2009 a huge head of steam had built behind the movement, and was having a direct effect on UK government policy. 'The direct action movement over the last few years really raised the temperature in government,' says Vidal, 'which needed to feel that this subject had a constituency. That’s why Ed Miliband kept telling people to protest, he knew that it gives a government legitimacy.'

Sense of hopelessness

But it was not enough. Copenhagen came and went, and there was no agreement, and worse, now a palpable sense of hopelessness. While protesters marched for miles and miles in the darkness and icy cold of a Scandinavian December, the politicians had seemed less engaged than ever: Barack Obama’s dull-voiced address to the summit killed off any hope that something incredible would happen and that world leaders would rise to the challenge.

A shattered silence fell. In Bolivia some activists rallied in Cochabamba; a little revival, like water sprayed over a thirsty crowd. But for those who did not travel the 6000 odd miles, 2010 was a year for painful contemplation of what on earth to do next.

The result of these soul searchings have been, undeniably, a change of focus. For most the failure of Copenhagen forced them to look hard at the political structures which made the failure possible. Hanna Thomas of Rising Tide and the Otesha Project had never taken part in direct action when she went out to Poznan, one of the earlier climate summits.

'When I first got involved, I really believed that we just needed to rebrand environmentalism, make it sexy, just get people excited enough to make them want to get involved. But when I went to Poznan with the UN, I came back completely radicalised, I came back thinking oh my god. I’d thought, oh the authorities will sort it out, and when I saw them working first hand I realised they didn’t know what they were doing.” For her events have been profoundly radicalising. 'Since Copenhagen, to be honest, I find myself thinking less about climate change, and more about bigger power structures and what they mean for climate change. And what we can do about it.'

Social justice

Dan Glass, who famously super-glued himself to Gordon Brown in 2008, agrees: 'My focus is more and more on the social justice aspect. In fact for many people the climate movement has morphed into an environmental justice movement. Basically, unless we’re making the comparison between what’s causing the problem and who’s being affected by it, no one’s going to listen. Does the social justice focus detract from the environmental issue? No, because it’s good for the environment. We’re not in the mess because of accident. We’re in this mess because of calculated policies which have prioritised the wealth of the few over the health of many.'

But does this mean that the movement has splintered? Garvin admits bluntly that the division between the 'reformers' who believed that change could be achieved in the current political system and the more radical activists who wanted to see ground-up systematic reform was one of the main divisions which sprang up in Climate Camp and more or less tore it apart. 'There were other problems – there were some internal politics, which would be too dull to talk about. But certainly that issue was the biggest problem Climate Camp faced and it really split people. So many people who’d been there in 2006, 2007, 2008 fell away. The 2010 camp in Edinburgh was fantastic but it was set up and run by completely new people and lots of the older crew boycotted it because they felt it was too liberal.'

That rift has been dealt in some ways by an increased focus on specific issues rather than policy. Climate change as a campaign topic is just no use anyway at the moment; what’s the point?

Tar sands 'biggest issue'

'Media coverage has switched to the cuts,' says Jess Worth of the Tar Sands Campaign. Instead Worth, like many other activists has searched for a new way to carry on the battle. 'My rationale, after Copenhagen, is to look for what is going to have the biggest single impact – and for me that’s tar sands. So if we can stop that then that’s the biggest contribution I can make to climate change.' Like others after the painful debacle of Copenhagen, she sees little point in continuing to follow the UN negotiations. 'A lot of people just want to bypass getting involved in targets and negotiations, in the international talks, we’re just trying to stop specific emissions at source. So you’ve got coal action in Scotland, Manchester runway camp, tar sands, biofuels… You don’t hear so much because it’s not as attention grabbing but I think it’s more effective because people are in it for the long haul, people are acting locally, stopping projects and having a real impact. We’re fighting on a lot of different fronts.'

There are plenty who are glum about the movement. Tony Cottee of Rising Tide says frankly: 'It seems to have passed its peak. All social movements have their curve, but this is catastrophic, really, that’s the only word for it. Just as we need to be pushing hardest people are preoccupied with other things.' He agrees that there have been some advances in UK policy, but derides the 'greenest government ever for taking away all the genuine support for green policies. 'Sure we’ve got the climate act but at the moment it’s just an umbrella with nothing underneath it all.' It is hard, in reality, to be optimistic when the news about emissions is relentlessly depressing.

But Daniel Vockins of 10:10 and Climate Camp is more optimistic. 'Did it have the impact we hoped for? Yes, it had a big impact in the national consciousness, it really moved forward the national debate. Has it solved climate change? No. But I do think there has been a sea change – in the UK at least – in the way we think about the environment. Most organisations have a green champion now, lots of communities up and down the country have got green campaigns and projects going on. I think it’s become embedded in our lives in a way that people just don’t realise.'

UK-UNCUT takes place of Plane Stupid?

And Danny Chivers, author of the No-Nonsense Guide to Climate Change, and Climate Camp poet, shares some of that optimism. 'The huge groundswell of anti-cuts and privatisation campaigns is incredibly inspiring and is feeding through into the climate movement in a number of important ways. In the short term, it’s drawn some energy and people away from organising climate action – most people who care about climate change are equally concerned about unemployment, health care, education, and all these other urgent battles that we’re suddenly having to fight. In the longer term though, the campaign against the cuts is getting many people of all ages involved in political action for the first time. A genuinely inspiring network is being formed outside of the political mainstream – people who started off by campaigning to save their local library or their friend’s disability benefits are now linking up with students, trade unions, anti-tax-dodging campaigners.'

We really do need the activists, says Asad Rahman, climate change negotiator for Friends of the Earth. 'What needs to be happening now is that developing countries need much stronger civil societies to lean harder on their governments. And the role for direct action in the UK remains huge. Look at Germany, where there have been huge campaigns against coal and nuclear which have forced the government to consider its position. The role of NGOs is to mobilise, and you've got to think of the fight against slavery. You knew this fight was not going to be over straight away, but you didn’t change the argument.'

And John Stewart, founder of HACAN Clearskies, sees an interesting future for the movement. 'My fear was that, after the victories at Heathrow and Kingsnorth, both of which gave it issues and campaigns to focus around, it might dissipate in the way it did in the late 1990s after it lost the anti-roads focus.  But it has found a new focus in the cuts.  In many ways I would see UK-UNCUT as the successor to Plane Stupid (if focusing on a different issue): focused; creative; media-savvy; with a clear message.'

'What’s interesting is that similar things are happening on the streets of Spain, Greece and Italy. It’s too early to know how all this will pan out but I suspect we will see a new generation emerge at least comfortable with the idea of direct action.'

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