A protester at England's Didcot power station contemplates the changing landscape.

A protester at England’s Didcot power station contemplates the changing landscape.
Photo: Kate Davison/Greenpeace

It’s half an hour or so after the end of Britain’s biggest-ever protest against climate change, and I’m still hanging out in Trafalgar Square.

A few groups of kids are milling around, and a couple of anarchists have set up a bicycle-powered disco. One or two old-timers are trying to get rid of their last remaining copies of the Socialist Worker. Most of the protesters have heeded the organizers’ advice to reuse or recycle their placards, but the local cleaning crews are quick on the job, cleaning up the rest of the rubbish to get the place ready for a typical London Saturday night. Everyone else is heading home, or to the pub.

My cell phone rings.

“Meet us near the top of the square,” says the voice on the other end of the line. “We’re wearing the tiger suits.”

So begins my foray into the world of radical opposition to climate change.

It’s been a big year for climate change in Britain — in several ways. The country’s three main political parties have more or less converged on the idea that something needs to be done urgently about global warming. Even the last holdout, the Conservative Party, has come over all green, going as far as to change their party logo from a torch to a tree.

The recent Stern Review, commissioned by the man likely to be the next prime minister, puts a pound amount on future upheaval along with a cost estimate for the change to a low-carbon economy. A system of mandatory individual carbon allowances — an idea outlined in Grist last year — is closer to becoming reality. And that big march to coincide with the Nairobi climate change conference? It drew 20,000 people.

Bubbling underneath all this highly visible mainstream progress, however, is a current of direct action — a hardened core of activists who have decided that it’s time to throw their bodies in front of the coming storm.

My efforts to track down this new wave led me to settle down on steps near Nelson’s Column to chat with a guy in a tiger suit.

A Rising Tide Floats All Votes

John Zee (not his real name) is a polite chap, and once we get to talking he seems no more outrageous or paranoid than your average activist. But behind the whiskers it’s clear that his brand of action is much different than that of mainstream environmental groups. Zee is part of London Rising Tide, a group with about 10 or 15 regulars and 40 or so occasional sympathizers.

“What people speaking at the demonstration today want is capitalism light, capitalism with a smile, and most of them believe this is the way we’re going to fight climate change and save the planet,” he says. “We disagree.”

Traditional direct actions, like tree sits and bulldozer blockades, have been designed to halt or stall the effects of environmental destruction. But you can’t chain yourself to a hurricane or stand in the way of a flood, so these protesters have had to focus on the sources of climate change — things like power stations and airports.

In August, Rising Tide helped organize a “climate camp” at Europe’s biggest coal-fired power plant, the Drax Power Station in Yorkshire, northern England. Hundreds of protesters spent a week near the station and nearly 40 were arrested in minor scuffles with police.

Brits get in their leader’s face.

Photo: Greenpeace

Another coal-fired power station west of London has been targeted twice this year: in July by a small group of protesters calling themselves “Reclaim Power,” and again by a larger group from Greenpeace earlier this month.

“We want to show that the only way we’re going to cut carbon emissions by 90 percent is if we shut these plants down ourselves,” Zee says.

Of course, direct environmental action is nothing new, and energy generation has long been a source of controversy. But several of the people I talked to indicated that activists here in Britain are ready to unleash a massive new wave of climate change-focused actions to rival in scale the opposition to the government’s huge road-building projects that took place in the 1990s.

“People who have been environmental activists on a variety of issues before are shifting their focus, largely because the problem of climate change is on such a massive scale that it makes other causes look small in comparison,” says Leo Murray of the group Plane Stupid.

“In the process, we’ve seen loads of new people contact us recently,” Murray says. “These are people who aren’t traditionally drawn to direct action but they realize the extent of climate change.”

It’s the Planes, Stupid

No, Plane Stupid isn’t arguing against high-carbon Euclidian geometry — their name reflects how they feel about the airline industry.

They’ve picked a tough battle. Big national airlines like British Airways, Air France, and Alitalia are deeply ingrained in the psyche of their respective countries, and they’re also massively subsidized. And the past decade has seen an explosion of cheapo short-haul carriers. For pennies (sometimes literally), no-frills airlines like EasyJet, Ryanair, and Air Berlin fly Europeans all over the continent — sometimes to places they didn’t even know they wanted to go (anybody for sunny Rijeka, Croatia?).

Members of Plane Stupid hold a sit-in at
Nottingham Airport.

Photo: Plane Stupid

In Britain, the idea of a “right to fly” has become so pervasive that supporters of airline fuel taxes are routinely accused of snobbery and elitism. The argument goes something like this: Higher taxes mean Tony Blair and his mates will still be able to unwind in Tuscany, but working-class families won’t get their own holidays in the sun.

Undaunted, Murray and Plane Stupid answer back by pointing out that the worst effects of climate change will affect the world’s poorest people. When I met up with him in a west London pub, he told me he and his fellow activists are prompted to act not just because of what climate change might bring in the future, but what’s happening right now.

“Here in the U.K., we’ve had a drought in the summer and an unusually warm autumn,” he says (which explains why I was still picking zucchini out of my garden on Halloween). “People have become aware that our climate has changed. There is massive suffering and death because of this, and it’s not a radical anarchist position that we’re expressing, it’s a scientific truth.”

According to industry and government figures, air travel only makes up about 6 percent of Britain’s carbon emissions, but with major airport expansion projects at Heathrow and elsewhere, that figure is expected to grow substantially.

A report [PDF] by one of the country’s leading climate change institutes estimated that if air travel emissions keep rising at the same rate, all British houses, businesses, and cars will have to be carbon neutral in order for the U.K. to hit its target of a 60 percent cut in carbon dioxide by 2050.

Still, in these terror-tainted times, sitting on airport runways is probably not the way many would choose to express discontent at climate policy. But that didn’t stop members of Plane Stupid from marching into Nottingham Airport — chosen because it handles short-haul flights — in September, throwing themselves down on a runway, and shutting the place down for the afternoon.

Twenty-four of them were arrested, but in something of a reversal of fortune for environmental protesters, Murray says his group hasn’t simply been dismissed as Plane Idiots.

“In the past, lots of people just didn’t respond well to direct action,” Murray says. “So you often heard people say ‘There’s lots of ways you can protest within the law, so why are you breaking it — what gives you the right?’ But since the [Drax] climate camp, the only response we’ve had is ‘good on ya.'” (That’s the Brit-speak equivalent of a pat on the back).

“It has to do with the issue and our approach, which is a far cry from the old-style environmentalism that some people saw as human bashing,” he says.

Extremism Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Of course, it’s not just a shower of bread and roses for the direct action crowd. One leading climate change scientist has criticized the “language of chaos and controversy” surrounding environmental debate in Britain. And although the activists may be thinking like revolutionaries, there’s a view that says climate change is too big of a problem to tackle via the type of focused actions that tend to attract banner headlines.

“What they maybe don’t realize is how pervasive carbon is in our everyday lives, how every little thing we do affects our carbon output, and how complex the science behind it is,” one scientist friend of mine told me in the pub after the London climate march (OK, so I spend a lot of time in the pub — at least I drink locally produced beer).

There’s also the question of whether the protests, by impeding power plants or blocking runways, have any real positive effect on the environment — and if not, whether that even matters.

Greenpeace activist Ben Stewart told me that his group prevented 20,000 tons of CO2 from entering the atmosphere when they forced Didcot power station west of London to partially shut down earlier this month. That might sound like a lot, until you compare it with Britain’s total carbon output: more than 150 million metric tons a year.

On the other hand, activists argue that symbolism is powerful. “At Drax, most of us felt we could shut the plant down, but we made the decision not to. The point was to demonstrate we had the power to do so if we wanted,” John Zee says. “And we’re not just shutting things down and saying no, we’re saying yes to things like decentralized energy, to community gardens.”

Indeed, every political or cultural movement needs a story, with characters, events, catalysts, drama, and struggle. So could one of the British protesters become the Emily Wilding Davison or Rosa Parks or Julia Butterfly Hill of the climate change movement? Will people a couple of decades from now look back and, in Leo Murray’s words, “know that we were right, and know who the real extremists were”?

Obviously, there’s no way to know the answers to those questions right now. But in the meantime, activists are already holding meetings and planning for the next climate camp — coming to a British power plant yet to be determined, some time in 2007.