Time to step up direct action

As negotiators inch toward a post-Kyoto treaty, popular mobilisation on climate-change issues is gaining support. We all need to get involved and to push the politicians forward, Maryann Bird writes.

In the great revolutionary struggles of human history, direct action – that is, empowered people taking steps to bring about social change – has played a crucial role. In its nonviolent form, direct action encourages the kind of constructive tension necessary for growth and progress in society. A catalyst for change, it opens the door to negotiation.

“We who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension,” Martin Luther King Jr wrote in his eloquent 1963 “Letter From Birmingham Jail”, which laid out the philosophical foundation of the American civil rights struggle. “We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with.”

Today, countless global, regional, national and locals battles are being fought for myriad causes – many of them environmental. Interests conflict; clashes erupt. Around the world, people are confronting many of the same issues: Should large dams be built, uprooting entire towns, to increase electrical-power capacity? Should the desire for minerals, timber or grazing pastures take precedence over the survival of ancient cultures or the preservation of the natural environment? Is it desirable to create new airports or runways, boosting business and tourism at the expense of the countryside, the air quality and the tranquillity of those living beneath flight paths? Should new coal-fired power plants be constructed, whatever the environmental consequences? Is drilling in pristine wilderness regions, or in unexplored seas, preferable to forfeiting potentially lucrative oil and gas fields? Should whales, tigers, elephants and other animals be left to live out their natural lives, or exploited for a variety of products?

How should these and other environmental disputes – including the biggest one: what to do about the rising greenhouse-gas emissions linked to climate change — be resolved? In the run-up to this year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP15) in Copenhagen, Denmark — at which the world’s governments aim to secure agreement on a post-Kyoto accord — Britain’s energy and climate-change secretary, Ed Miliband, has a suggestion. Miliband recently told the Guardian that a global campaign – much like “Make Poverty History” in 2005 – is necessary to push the world’s politicians toward an effective new climate deal, despite concerns about the state of the global economy. “Make Poverty History” rallied millions of individuals and hundreds of organisations around the world, pressing Group of Eight (G8) leaders meeting in Scotland in July 2005 to commit US$50 billion to help combat poverty in developing countries, mostly in Africa.

“When you think about all the big historic movements, from the suffragettes [who campaigned over a century ago for women’s right to vote] to anti-apartheid, to sexual equality in the 1960s, all the big political movements had popular mobilisation,” Miliband said just before heading to the December 2008 UN climate talks in Poznan, Poland (COP14). “Maybe it’s an odd thing for someone in government to say, but I just think there’s a real opportunity and a need here.”

Numerous organisations have been doggedly campaigning for years on environmental issues — particularly climate change. Now, momentum is growing ahead of the critical Copenhagen conference. The first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, which set binding greenhouse gas-reduction targets for industrialised countries, ends in 2012. A successor agreement, a new international framework, must be secured to address the stringent emissions reductions sought by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

“Political change comes from leadership and popular mobilisation,” says Miliband. “And you need both of them.”

Popular mobilisation” encompasses a range of political actions, including rallies and protest marches. It is a form of the loose term “direct action”, which includes civil disobedience as well as legislative campaigns. At its heart, “direct action” means that individuals (and like-minded people) act for themselves instead of having others (such as politicians) act for them — that they bring about change through their own efforts. Around the world today, there are captivating examples of people putting themselves forward — sometimes in defiance of the law — on environmental issues. And often they do it with a sense of humour, a bit of mischief-making and a knack for capturing media attention.

Prior to the Poznan climate conference, 11 Greenpeace climbers spent two days atop a 150-metre chimney at the Patnow coal-fired power plant in Konin, in central Poland. Their aim: to highlight the impact of such “dirty” power stations on the earth’s climate. Protesters also demonstrated at an opencast lignite — low-grade brown coal — mine in Konin and dumped tonnes of coal in front of a Warsaw hotel where Poland’s economy minister, Waldemar Pawlak, was hosting a climate-related meeting. The country, they said, is over-reliant on coal. (With Germany, Poland is a major producer of coal in the European Union and relies on the rock for over 90% of its energy needs. Along with South Africa, the World Coal Institute identified Poland as the planet’s most coal-dependent country for its electricity requirements.)

“For two days and nights,” said Patnow protester Gavin Edwards, head of Greenpeace’s global climate campaign, “I’ve sat on this smokestack and watched it accelerate climate change. Nothing does more damage to the climate than coal power.”

After descending from the chimney, the activists went on to Poznan, where they reopened their “Climate Rescue Station”, urging delegates at the UN talks to “get serious” about climate change. (See Chinese journalist Yuan Weijian’s report on the protest for chinadialogue.)

In Britain, two major climate-related environmental clashes have been boiling: opposition to the oil- and coal-fired Kingsnorth power station, now the most heavily guarded facility of its kind in the country, and resistance to construction of a third runway and a sixth passenger terminal at London’s Heathrow, the world’s busiest airport.

At Kingsnorth, on the Medway River estuary in the English county of Kent, south-east of London, the energy company E.On wants to replace old power units with Britain’s first new coal-fired ones in decades, to produce “cleaner” coal power. “A new Kingsnorth,” argues Greenpeace activist Ben Stewart, “would emit the same amount of carbon dioxide as the 30 least-polluting countries in the world combined, and destroy any chance we have of persuading China and India to stop building coal plants.” Carbon dioxide (CO2) is one of the most abundant greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere.

In August 2008, at least 1,000 climate-change activists set up a “climate camp” and protested for a week at the facility. Some clashed with police, but failed in their attempts to get into Kingsnorth to disrupt power generation. One activist, identified only as Madeleine, said later: “If the government gives the go-ahead for a new plant, we will be back to stop it. This is not a symbolic protest.” (That said, one of the most iconic environmental symbols — Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior — made a supportive anti-coal stop at Kingsnorth in late October, with an accompanying flotilla of canoes and inflatable boats.)

A decision on the plant — by Miliband, who oversees energy policy — is expected early this year.

Another Kingsnorth protest, back in October 2007, resulted in the prosecution of six Greenpeace activists (including Stewart), who were accused of causing criminal damage at the plant. The activists admitted that they had tried to shut down the power station and had painted the word “Gordon” — the start of their intended message to prime minister Gordon Brown, “Gordon, bin it” — on a 200-metre-tall chimney. They argued, however, that they were legally justified in their actions because they were attempting to prevent climate change, which would cause greater damage to property around the world.

Prosecutor John Price contended that the protesters’ actions were unlawful, saying: “There are things you can lawfully do in making a protest but there’s a line which has to be drawn. When the defendants caused damage to that chimney, it’s the line that they crossed.”

In September 2008, after an eight-day trial that hinged on the “lawful excuse” argument, a jury acquitted the protesters. The success of the rare defence and the embarrassment that the verdict visited on the government is thought likely to encourage further direct action against companies and industries that contribute significantly to greenhouse-gas emissions.

“It wasn’t only us in the dock,” said Emily Hall, the only woman among the six defendants. “It was coal-fired power generation as well. … It’s time the prime minister stepped in an embraced a clean energy future for Britain.” Stewart called their acquittal “a potent challenge to the government’s plans for new coal-fired stations from jurors representing ordinary people in Britain who, after hearing the evidence, supported the right to take direct action in order to protect the climate.”

A British environmental lawyer, Martyn Day, sees a pattern emerging, he told the Guardian after the Greenpeace verdict. “The public is increasingly speaking through the courts,” he said. “These cases are a good guide to public mood and politicians should take close heed of them. It shows that society is greatly concerned about what is happening with the environment and that it is suspicious of government and business when they say they are acting responsibly.”

Day added: “We’re looking at a society which is far more in tune with the environment than in the past. Politicians and companies have not understood that most people now understand the issues. There’s a feeling that government and the authorities have not been paying sufficient heed, and that the courts are righting the balance.”

In late November, a single daring activist managed to scale security fences at Kingsnorth and go on to disable a 500-megawatt power turbine that had been running at full load. All power from the plant was halted for four hours. The saboteur has not been identified or apprehended.

A spokeswoman for E.On, quoted by the Guardian, denounced that action as highly dangerous and “in a different league to protesters chaining themselves to equipment. It’s someone treating a power station as an adventure playground. …We do not have a problem with public protest but this was reckless. Whoever it was has crossed a line they should not have gone over. Power stations are dangerous places.”

Out at Heathrow Airport, west of London, the authorities want to add a controversial third runway and sixth passenger terminal. The plans have been attacked by environmental organisations, local governing bodies, some members of Parliament (including government ministers), and airport neighbours who do not want to see either the unbridled expansion of the aviation industry or the obliteration of the nearby village of Sipson. In their thousands, people turned out last June to protest the expansion.

Last week, the government approved the scheme, prompting hundreds of protesters to descend on the airport two days later, on January 17. The demonstrators vowed to “win the political war”, and their action is certain to be just the start of many more in the months and years ahead. The Heathrow expansion plan could increase the number of flights at what is already the world’s busiest airport by almost 40% — from the current 480,000 a year to more than 600,000.

Numerous businesses and industry organisations back the expansion wholeheartedly, saying in a joint statement that Heathrow is “vital for business”, and adding: “It offers the direct connections which make our companies globally successful and which will be all the more important as India and China grow.” Also supporting the plans are prime minister Brown, the construction industry and some trade unions, engineers and aviation experts.

But aircraft emissions are Britain’s fastest-growing source of CO2 and, experts say, they eventually could account for nearly all of the country’s allowable carbon output. Opponents of a third runway argue that expansion is wholly incompatible with the fight against climate change and that it would totally undermine Britain’s commitment to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by 80% by 2050.

Runway backers assert that technological improvements in the aviation industry — including new, lighter materials and new aircraft and engine designs — mean that fuel use can be curtailed, emissions kept in check and efficiency increased. Therefore, they say, the environment will be rescued, British businesses will remain competitive and Heathrow will be able to match (or surpass) the airports of Amsterdam, Paris and Frankfurt in the number of flight destinations on offer.

Similar arguments, though on a smaller scale, are being heard in regard to other airports around Britain. On the frontline of the anti-aviation campaign is Plane Stupid, an imaginative direct-action group that considers air travel the single greatest threat to the earth’s climate. Plane Stupid seeks to bring aviation “down to earth” through an end to low-cost, short-haul flights; higher aviation fuel-taxes, and a halt to airport expansion.

In December, the group brought traffic at Stansted Airport, north-east of London, to a standstill when protesters stormed the airfield to express their opposition to a second runway at the country’s third-busiest airport. Over the past few years, Plane Stupid supporters have taken part in a “climate camp” near Heathrow; protested at the airport’s new fifth terminal; demonstrated against short-haul flights at London’s second airport, Gatwick; offered to “buy” that facility with decades’ worth of carbon credits and turn it into a sanctuary for newts; staged a rooftop protest at the Houses of Parliament, and disrupted operations at the Manchester and East Midlands airports.

The organisation’s influence is growing, as other environmental groups and prominent supporters cheer it on and new groups, including one in Sweden, adopt similar direct-action tactics. Other voices denounce the protesters’ “stunts” and consider them “Plane Selfish” for the inconvenience they have caused to travelers. Analysts also worry that such disruptive tactics will spread, given that the visibility and vulnerability of airports make them effective locations for publicising causes.

As Leo Hickman, a journalist and author on ethical living issues, wrote for the Guardian after the Stansted protest: “Non-violent direct action rubs against the grain of popular opinion in order to get itself noticed amid a sea of self-interest, apathy and day-to-day distractions. It is born out of desperation and frustration that the normal democratic processes have failed, are flawed, or are corrupted by vested interests, despite clear evidence that the current path is dangerous or unjust.”

On a lighter but still serious note in Britain, activists wearing dinner jackets and bow ties were ejected from the London headquarters of the oil giant BP recently as they attempted to present the company with Greenpeace’s first “Emerald Paintbrush” award — for “greenwashing above and beyond the call of duty”. Greenpeace said it plans to make the “award” annually to companies it believes hide their harmful environmental impact behind “misleading” advertisements. The environmental organisation says that BP, which has styled itself in recent years as “Beyond Petroleum”, put US$20 billion (or 93% of its 2008 investment budget) into oil and gas extraction.

Also in December, Greenpeace activists presented themselves at Japanese government offices and embassies around the world, asking officials to “arrest me too”. Declaring themselves complicit “co-defendants” in the actions of two Greenpeace campaigners who were arrested in June 2008, the activists seek an end to Japan’s annual whale hunt in the Southern Ocean, conducted as “scientific research”. Since then, nearly 50,000 people worldwide have signed a petition asking to be arrested for “the crime of defending whales”. The two accused campaigners — Junichi Sato and Toru Suzuki — were held after “intercepting” a ship crewman’s box of whale meat and subsequently exposing whale-meat embezzlement from the country’s taxpayer-funded whaling programme. They face trial early this year — and potential 10-year prison sentences.

In the icy waters near Antarctica in December, the United States-based environmentalist organisation Sea Shepherd again sought to disrupt the Japanese whale hunt, pursuing the fleet in dangerous conditions in hopes of launching a “rotten butter bomb” attack on a vessel.

Four decades ago in the United States, when police clashed violently with Vietnam-war protesters in the streets of Chicago as Democratic Party delegates met to choose their 1968 presidential candidate, a dramatic slogan (and prescient warning) was born: “The whole world is watching.” Since then, people around the world have echoed the Chicago demonstrators’ chant as other significant events have unfolded: revolutions, marches against wars or repressive policies, clashes over globalisation, debates on ethnic or religion-based violence. “The whole world is watching.”

Greenpeace’s Gavin Edwards recalled it in Poland in December, explaining the coal protesters’ transfer of their “Climate Rescue Station” from Konin to Poznan: “The politicians … need to get serious about preventing dangerous climate change. … [W]e’re moving our base-camp … to let them know the world is watching.”

As climate change takes hold, as environmental activism increases in this era of instant global communication and as the Copenhagen climate conference approaches, the old protest chant has become the literal truth. Climate change isn’t a local dispute and it will affect us all. The whole world IS watching. What are we going to do?


What do you think of direct action? Should more people be getting actively involved in environmental demonstrations? Is breaking the law for a good cause justifiable? What about violence? Has society in general moved ahead of governments and businesses on the need for radical action to slow climate change?


What are your views? Let us know on the forum!


Maryann Bird is associate editor of chinadialogue.


Homepage photo by Will Rose/GREENPEACE