The UK's Climate Rebels | The Nation


The UK's Climate Rebels

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Maria Margaronis
Maria Margaronis
Maria Margaronis writes from The Nation's London bureau. Her work has appeared in many other publications,...

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In a worn leather armchair on London's bare Blackheath, a middle-aged man is reading Cormac McCarthy's The Road, in which a father and son trudge through a lifeless postapocalyptic world. Around him spreads a city of colorful pop-up tents, kitchens under canvas, composting toilets and a solar-powered cinema. The bright pink banner over the entrance reads, Capitalism Is Crisis.

Welcome to the 2009 Camp for Climate Action, a weeklong, late-summer strategy session, teach-in and experiment in sustainable living by Britain's direct-action movement against climate change. The offspring of a liaison between anticapitalist protesters and environmental activists, Climate Camp was born in a field outside the G-8 summit in Scotland in 2005--the one where former Prime Minister Tony Blair vowed to make climate change a priority, helping to push the issue up the media agenda. Since then campers have invaded coal-fired power stations, protested the planned third runway at London's Heathrow Airport ("We are armed...only with peer-reviewed science") and pitched their tents in the heart of the City of London to highlight the connections between profit and carbon abuse. With other groups from the growing movement for climate justice--from urban activists to indigenous campaigners--the camp will have a loud presence in Copenhagen in December, aiming to turn the conference for a day into a People's Summit.

Previous gatherings have been plagued by overzealous policing, which hijacked headlines and detracted from the camp's main messages--no new coal, no new runways, an end to endless growth--but at the Blackheath camp the police have been on their best behavior. Blackheath is still common land, where any local is in theory free to graze his sheep. Wat Tyler's Peasant Revolt assembled here in 1381 to march against the government, as did the Kent rebellion in 1450 and suffragettes in the early twentieth century. The campers see themselves as heirs to those traditions, and in a sense they are. If you are young (or not so young), idealistic and radical in Britain now, this is where you go for community, engagement and direct-action training.

In the last week of August as many as 3,000 people visited Blackheath, to camp, to attend a workshop or just to try a smoothie made in a bicycle-powered blender. The atmosphere was somewhere between a conference and a festival. In the milky light of the main marquee, geeky young men in glasses, girls in recycled frocks and seasoned old campaigners discussed climate science and carbon trading, composting and convergence with visitors from think tanks and environmental NGOs. A vigorous daily role-playing game taught would-be protesters how to deal with police tactics. Hours were spent debating the movement's future. How to reach out to "workers," older people, ethnic minorities? "Edgy" and radical, or "fluffy" and more accessible? Anticapitalist or merely antigrowth?

Climate Camp has been criticized for being too inward-looking, and all this navel-gazing has its self-indulgent aspect. But then, movements like this one--mostly young and white and middle class--have always been about transforming their participants as well as the wider world. Climate Camp has no (official) leaders; decisions are made by consensus using a code of hand signals, which can take some time. And while some punters may just be along for the ride, a growing number see civil disobedience as the only sane response to a desperate situation and are willing to risk arrest and serious injury.

The camp is the largest node in a network of direct-action groups that have sprung up in Britain over the past five years; their tactics range from the physically courageous to the whimsically theatrical. Protesters have scaled power-station towers, stopped coal trains and super-glued themselves to corporate headquarters. Members of Plane Stupid shut down airports by climbing on top of short-haul jets or chaining themselves to the wheels. This summer Climate Rush, in suffragette petticoats, caught the tabloids' attention by dumping manure on the driveway of Jeremy Clarkson, the BBC's motormouthed car promoter. A "Climate Casino" held in full evening dress outside the European Climate Exchange dramatized one of the Blackheath camp's key arguments: that market-based solutions like carbon trading will not deliver the necessary emission reductions and risks producing a new financial bubble. The performance inspired a Channel 4 TV news investigation that confirmed the protesters' case: large profits are made through carbon trading, but almost no carbon is saved.

The direct-action movement keeps climate change in the news, draws attention to key battlegrounds, expands the space for dissent, brings urgency and flair to an issue that can seem distant or numbingly technical. It can also claim a couple of concrete victories, though the recession has had as much to do with both. In October the German power company E.ON shelved its plans to expand the Kingsnorth coal-fired power station in Kent--site of a previous camp--after failing to win an EU grant for a carbon capture and storage project, which went instead to an existing plant in Yorkshire. The planning application for Heathrow's third runway has also been put on ice until after the next election; the Conservatives, who are almost certain to win, have said they will scrap the development. The runway has attracted widespread opposition, not least from local residents and from the government's advisory body, the Committee on Climate Change. Greenpeace (the original environmental direct-action group) has bought a plot of land in the runway's path with the help of three celebrities; more than 57,000 people have joined "Airplot" as nominal legal owners, theoretically too many to evict or take to court.

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