Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Britain: The war on hot air

In the 1980s it was the bomb, in the 1990s globalisation. Now CO2 is the enemy du jour. Jonathan Leake on why green is the new black

It looked like any other demo. Hundreds of young protesters swarmed around the police on Thursday waving banners and shouting slogans; a few were arrested — and then the rest went home. Each week in London and other major cities such protests are routinely ignored by the public and the national media. However, in the candlelit tents pitched in a field close to Yorkshire’s mighty Drax power station, a hard core of protesters have spent the past few nights celebrating one of the green movement’s greatest publicity coups in years.

“We had 600 people, hardly enough to fill Trafalgar Square,” gloated one protester, “but at Drax we got top billing on every news programme and coverage in every newspaper. It shows that climate change is an issue whose time has come.”

Such good organisation. Such clever media management. Could it be that these demonstrators had a bit more to them than it seemed? Indeed they did. Around half of those attending the Drax climate camp were veterans of diverse direct action groups including road protesters, anti-globalisation demonstrators and anti-GM groups.

“Drax was like a reunion,” said Mark Lynas, an environmental activist and author. “There were dozens of familiar faces, many of whom I hadn’t seen for years. It was hugs and kisses all round.”

This alliance has alighted upon a common goal that they hope to make the cause celebre of the decade: a war on carbon dioxide.

Never mind that Drax is a highly efficient energy provider or that Britain cannot function without its electricity: the multi-chimneyed behemoth produces 7% of British CO2 pollution. Therefore, it is a target for protest. The Drax protesters are planning further demonstrations and disruption at power stations, factories, airports and motorways around Britain. “Anything that produces CO2 in large quantities is now a target,” said one activist.

Their campaign against CO2 is a vehicle for a much more radical political agenda, however. “Our movement is based on questioning the whole basis of economic growth,” said Robbie Madden of Rising Tide, one of the organising groups. “The road protesters provided the inspiration for the Drax camp. We have an honourable tradition of breaking the law for a higher aim which is to change the way people live and think. Climate change is an issue that can help us do that.”

How intriguing then that David Cameron, the Conservative leader, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, governor of California, are also riding this environmental bandwagon. On Friday, Cameron announced that the Conservatives would join Friends of the Earth’s call for new environmental taxes and legislation to cut Britain’s CO2 emissions. Meanwhile, Schwarzenegger was putting the finishing touches to a landmark agreement to slash California’s CO2 emissions by 25% by 2020. Schwarzenegger has made it clear that he thinks his new environmental taxes will get him re-elected. Similarly, the Conservatives’ own polls have shown that Cameron’s green policies are playing a major role in giving him his recent lead over Tony Blair.

If the war on CO2 emissions has become such fruitful ground for tacticians of both the left and the right, there is obviously something afoot. Could it be that this congruence of radical chic and mainstream politics marks the point at which the anxious public begins to accept real changes in lifestyle to halt global warming?

Scientists have been warning about the dangers of global warming for more than a decade now. Only last week, John Holdren, new president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, suggested that global sea levels could rise 13ft by the end of this century — much higher than previous forecasts. “We are experiencing dangerous human disruption of the global climate and we’re going to experience more,” Holdren said. Like Sir David King, Tony Blair’s chief scientific adviser, Holdren believes that the world has just a couple of decades to take the action needed to limit the global temperature rise to no more than 2C. Above this level, he warns, the world would face catastrophe from runaway warming that could melt ice caps and glaciers and force hundreds of millions from their homes.

Such warnings have been largely ignored by the general public in the past. No longer. In June, supermarkets were shocked to find themselves the target of a demonstration by the Women’s Institute (WI). Mothers were mobilising against them for using too much packaging — a prime source of CO2.

WI members all over the country demanded to see supermarket managers and then remonstrated with them on the shop floor. Soon afterwards, Tesco announced it would be cutting down on plastic bags and packaging. It also launched a multi-million pound celebrity advertising campaign in which consumers are urged to stop using plastic bags. “We all know we are using too many carrier bags. That’s why from now on, we’ll give you a green Clubcard point every time you re-use a bag,” says the Tesco website.

The backlash against gas-guzzling vehicles, especially 4x4s, has also spread rapidly. The Alliance Against Urban 4x4s now operates in cities across the country. “We want to make people realise that driving a big 4x4 in town is as socially unacceptable as drink-driving,” said one activist last week.

There are clear signs that people are beginning to alter their lifestyles to become green. Recycling, once the preserve of the few, has become almost the norm. Travelling by air is no longer the automatic option. Energy providers promote their green credentials. Octavius Black, 38, managing director of Mind Gym consultancy, flies regularly for business but has cut out holiday flights. “Since I watched Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, about climate I have now given up taking flights to go on short holiday breaks and I am cutting down on business flights whenever I can,” he said. “I also changed my electricity supplier to one that uses renewables.”

It is hard to judge how far such behaviour extends. Flight bookings are surging, and the number of cars on the road is also increasing. But Climatecare.org, a website-based service that calculates carbon emissions and invests in projects to offset them, has seen business surge recently with a 10-fold increase in sales. Similarly, the number of holidays from Britain sold as “responsible” or “sustainable” has now risen to 450,000 a year. This is still a small percentage of the total but, according to the consumer research firm Mintel, by 2010 the annual “ethical” holiday market from the UK will have swollen to 2.5m trips a year — not all of them climate-related but apparently indicative of an electorate increasingly willing to make sacrifices to safeguard its future.

While the new Tories capitalise on this sea-change, Labour still seems to be floundering. “So far Cameron has stolen all the green limelight,” said a government advisor in Defra, the environment ministry. “He doesn’t have any policies but he does look good and we have been left behind.”

The government’s efforts to deal with climate change have long been crippled by the fear that any meaningful measures would involve taxation. It remembers the fuel tax protests of 2000 when lorry drivers threatened to bring the country to a standstill over the rising cost of fuel. The green movement has been planning to reverse that setback ever since. Two years ago the chief executives of Britain’s biggest environmental groups — ranging from Friends of the Earth (FoE) and Greenpeace to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) — began regular private meetings in London.

The outcome of those discussions is the Stop Climate Chaos campaign, a coalition of around 30 organisations which, says Tony Juniper, director of FoE, aims to take climate change out of the ghetto. “We want to make it a truly populist issue with a mass movement that will force it up the political agenda.” Stop Climate Chaos will hold its first big demonstration in London on November 4. With its emphasis on saving mankind from self-destruction, it hopes to equal the pulling power of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), which at its peak in the 1980s had more than 1m members.

What may concern ministers most is not that the Drax militants are expected to turn up on November 4 but that middle England is likely to come along, with delegations expected from the RSPB, the WI, Oxfam and many more highly respectable groups. Cameron’s green Conservatives are also expected.

For the RSPB, traditionally one of the least militant of organisations, it will be the biggest demonstration it has been involved with. “The government is not making enough progress on climate change and we want to generate political pressure to change that,” said Mark Avery, the RSPB’s director of conservation. “We have more than a million members — that’s more than all three main political parties put together. They would do well to remember that.”

(From The Times)

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