Direct action against climate change

04 November 2009

As politicians meet for more climate talks in Barcelona, they continue to be fixated on measures like carbon trading that will only exacerbate the climate crisis. Fortunately the last year in the UK and worldwide has shown that direct action against carbon-intensive projects can deliver results.

I was a bit puzzled earlier this week when the new intern in our office – a conscientious sort – didn’t show up to work this week. It all made sense when I got a call from her yesterday saying that she had only been released from police custody after spending two nights camped high up on a smoke stack on a coal-fired power station in Oxford. As far as ‘not coming to work’ excuses go, it’s pretty water-tight.

Taking direct action on climate change has become a regular feature in the UK political landscape. The motivation for people to get involved in these sorts of activities has received a huge boost in October as climate activists suddenly started to see the fruits of their labour. 2009 will be remembered in the UK as the year when direct action got the goods!

Two of the most emblematic sites of climate struggle in the UK in recent years have been the proposal to build a third runway at Heathrow Airport, and to build the first coal-fired power station in the country for thirty years at Kingsnorth in Kent. Both of these bright ideas resulted from  massive pressure from the business lobby and would have locked the UK into an even greater level of carbon emissions for decades to come. In both cases the government was assuring us that we needn’t be concerned about their devastating climate impacts because it would be taken care of by carbon trading and offsetting.

Within the space of one memorable week in October, the companies behind the two contested developments, E.ON and BAA, quietly announced that they were shelving their plans. Although the recession was cited as the reason, it was widely acknowledged that the protracted direct action campaign in both sites by groups like the Camp for Climate Action, Plane Stupid and Rising Tide had played an enormous role in delaying the decisions by turning non-issues into political hot potatoes.

The dazzling array of imaginative, and often confrontational actions have included mass trespass, lock-ons, fence cutting, office occupations, blockades, runway invasions, an armada of homemade rafts laying siege to a power station and many, many people super-gluing themselves to pretty much anything and everything within reach.

It’s not just a question of trying to grab headlines - although a certain degree of media savvyness has played an important role. Activists had expressed a commitment to physically intervene if and when the bulldozers rolled in. In the village of Sipson, where a thousand families stood to lose their homes in order to build a third runway at Heathrow Airport, a speed dating service had hooked up local residents with affinity groups to develop plans to resist any eviction attempts.

One big lesson that climate activists in the UK have learnt from previous direct action campaigns is the importance of sensitive engagement with local communities for the success and legitimacy of direct actions. When thousands appeared unannounced one afternoon in August to set up the Camp for Climate Action in a park in the borough of Lewisham in London, the local outreach was so successful that the local council subsequently passed a motion congratulating the camp on holding a successful and stimulating event!

It’s been a busy year. In the UK, we’ve seen actions ranging from thousands of people camping in the heart of the financial district of London outside the European Climate Exchange to protest against carbon trading during the G20, to the ‘Great Climate Swoop’ on October 17 which saw some 800 activists invading one of the biggest coal-fired plants in the country. One of the most exciting actions involved the cross-fertilisation of labour and environmental movements, when Climate Campers occupied a factory roof in solidarity with the sacked Vestas workers who barricaded themselves inside England's only wind turbine factory that was being closed down. During the final week in October, people occupied a coal-fired plant in Oxfordshire and camped for two days on top of the smoke stack, while other activists disrupted work at two opencast coal mines in Derbyshire and Scotland.

The UK climate movement’s successes, however, are just one small part of global efforts against fossil-fuel dependent economies. A whole host of inspiring and crucial struggles are taking place in Southern countries that don’t necessarily identify themselves as being about ‘climate direct action’ and don’t enjoy the privilege of as much media coverage. Yet these struggles are also of key importance in the fight for climate justice – such as the indigenous communities in the Peruvian Amazon fighting to resist the expansion of oil companies, and the organising efforts of peasant communities the world over struggling for the right to maintain existing low-carbon livelihoods.

Groups like the Camp for Climate Action are also mobilizing to go to Copenhagen with the intention of using civil disobedience as part of Climate Justice Action. They are being joined by growing number of groups frustrated at the way the talks have become dominated by business interests and rail-roaded down the path of failed market-based mechanisms. In response, the UK police are already using anti-terrorist legislation to harass climate activists travelling to Copenhagen for preparatory meetings, while the Danish government is rushing through repressive legislation to crack down on dissent ahead of the talks. 

With the Copenhagen summit doomed from the outset from agreeing anything that would begin to meaningfully address the threat of climate change, and with governments the world over failing to stem the tide of new carbon-intensive infrastructure, there is a clear role for mass civil disobedience and targeted direct action. In the UK, like many countries around the world, communities and concerned citizens are starting to take matter into the own hands out of frustration at the failure of governments to take action.