Citizen Action Monitor

Post-Copenhagen, UK climate activists split on what to do next

No 220 Posted by fw, July 15, 2011

“Exhaustion set in after Copenhagen. After three years of campaigning ever more intensely, only to be engulfed in the dark sand storm that was the international climate summit in December 2009, you could feel the whole movement subsiding into cramping collapse. ‘Copenhagen was kind of a pinnacle, a culmination; people in Climate Camp had been working towards it for a very long time,’ says Daniel Garvin, who travelled with Climate Camp to the summit. ‘I came back very tired. And during the year afterwards, for Climate Camp at least, a lot of internal politics raised their head. In truth we just weren’t very clear about what to do next. And a lot of people took to soul searching. . . . Climate change as a campaign topic is just no use anyway at the moment; what’s the point?‘ “

This is the opening paragraph of an excellent article, Activism special: Where next for eco activism in the UK? by Bibi van der Zee, Ecologist, July 6, 2011. Click on the linked title to read the full article. What follows are my edited selected highlights.

Selected highlights of UK’s climate change movement — past, present and future prospects 

2001 — Campaign against Climate Change, founded by Phil Thornhill, saw growing interest over the next few years:

“It felt as if things were finally taking off, I felt very optimistic. After that the NGOs really started talking, and Stop Climate Chaos coalition [the umbrella organization for coordinating action on climate change] emerged, and I feel as if we really accelerated all that.’ Direct action group Rising Tide formed at the same time with the slogan ‘Carrying out action on the root causes of climate change.’ Progress was slow, but movement appeared to be in the right direction.”

2006-2008 highlights

2009 highlights — van der Zee writes:

“A huge head of steam had built behind the movement, and was having a direct effect on UK government policy. ‘The direct action movement over the last few years really raised the temperature in government,’ says [Guardian journalist John] Vidal, ‘which needed to feel that this subject had a constituency. That’s why Ed Miliband kept telling people to protest, he knew that it gives a government legitimacy.‘ “

Post-Copenhagen, “a palpable sense of hopelessness” emerged —

Copenhagen came and went, and there was no agreement, and worse, now a palpable sense of hopelessness. While protesters marched for miles and miles in the darkness and icy cold of a Scandinavian December, the politicians had seemed less engaged than ever: Barack Obama’s dull-voiced address to the summit killed off any hope that something incredible would happen and that world leaders would rise to the challenge.”

2010 — A year for soul searching, refocusing and, for some, radicalization and power-building

Case in point — Less climate change more power building: “A year for painful contemplation of what on earth to do next.” The result of these soul searchings has been, undeniably, a change of focus. For most, the failure of Copenhagen forced them to look hard at the political structures which made the failure possible. Hanna Thomas of Rising Tide and the Otesha Project had never taken part in direct action when she went out to Poznan, one of the earlier climate summits:

When I first got involved, I really believed that we just needed to rebrand environmentalism, make it sexy, just get people excited enough to make them want to get involved. But when I went to Poznan with the UN, I came back completely radicalized, I came back thinking oh my god. I’d thought, oh the authorities will sort it out, and when I saw them working first hand I realized they didn’t know what they were doing.” For her events have been profoundly radicalizing. “Since Copenhagen, to be honest, I find myself thinking less about climate change, and more about bigger power structures and what they mean for climate change. And what we can do about it.

Case in point — Climate Camp activists split into two camps — reformers vs radicals: “Daniel Garvin admits bluntly that the division between the ‘reformers’ who believed that change could be achieved in the current political system and the more radical activists who wanted to see ground-up systematic reform was one of the main divisions which sprang up in Climate Camp and more or less tore it apart.  So many people who’d been there in 2006, 2007, 2008 fell away. The 2010 camp in Edinburgh was fantastic but it was set up and run by completely new people and lots of the older crew boycotted it because they felt it was too liberal. That rift has been dealt in some ways by an increased focus on specific issues rather than policy. Climate change as a campaign topic is just no use anyway at the moment; what’s the point?”

Case in point — on the positive side, the movement raised public awareness: Daniel Vockins of 10:10 and Climate Camp is optimistic. “Did it have the impact we hoped for? Yes, it had a big impact in the national consciousness, it really moved forward the national debate. Has it solved climate change? No. Most organizations have a green champion now, lots of communities up and down the country have got green campaigns and projects going on. I think it’s become embedded in our lives in a way that people just don’t realize.

Case in Point — on the negative side — “catastrophic”Tony Cottee of Rising Tide is blunt in his assessment: “It [the climate change activist movement] seems to have passed its peak. All social movements have their curve, but this is catastrophic, really, that’s the only word for it. Just as we need to be pushing hardest, people are preoccupied with other things. . . . [And] the climate act is just an umbrella with nothing underneath. It is hard to be optimistic when the news about emissions is relentlessly depressing.”

Today — New Voices, New Focuses, New Roles

> Social justice focus — Climate change activist Dan Glass says: ‘My focus is more and more on the social justice aspect. In fact for many people the climate movement has morphed into an environmental justice movement. Basically, unless we’re making the comparison between what’s causing the problem and who’s being affected by it, no one’s going to listen. Does the social justice focus detract from the environmental issue? No, because it’s good for the environment. We’re not in the mess because of accident. We’re in this mess because of calculated policies which have prioritized the wealth of the few over the health of many.’

> Tar sands focus — Ms Jess Worth, New Internationalist co-editor and UK Tar Sands Network co-founder says that because media coverage has switched to the LibDems cuts, her strategy “is to look for what is going to have the biggest single impact – and for me that’s tar sands. So if we can stop that then that’s the biggest contribution I can make to climate change.’ Worth sees little point in continuing to follow the UN climate negotiations:

“A lot of people just want to bypass getting involved in targets and negotiations, in the international talks, we’re just trying to stop specific emissions at source. So you’ve got coal action in ScotlandManchester runway camp, tar sands, biofuels… You don’t hear so much because it’s not as attention grabbing but I think it’s more effective because people are in it for the long haul, people are acting locally, stopping projects and having a real impact. We’re fighting on a lot of different fronts.’

UK-UNCUT — a new player, is shaking things up: Danny Chivers, author of the No-Nonsense Guide to Climate Change, and Climate Camp poet, is optimistic:

The huge groundswell of anti-cuts and privatization campaigns is incredibly inspiring and is feeding through into the climate movement in a number of important ways. In the short term, it’s drawn some energy and people away from organizing climate action – most people who care about climate change are equally concerned about unemployment, health care, education, and all these other urgent battles that we’re suddenly having to fight. In the longer term though, the campaign against the cuts is getting many people of all ages involved in political action for the first time. A genuinely inspiring network is being formed outside of the political mainstream – people who started off by campaigning to save their local library or their friend’s disability benefits are now linking up with students, trade unions, anti-tax-dodging campaigners.”

> New role for NGOs, mobilize activists — Asad Rahman, climate change negotiator for Friends of the Earth International — “What needs to be happening now is that developing countries need much stronger civil societies to lean harder on their governments. And the role for direct action in the UK remains huge. Look at Germany, where there have been huge campaigns against coal and nuclear which have forced the government to consider its position. The role of NGOs is to mobilize, and you’ve got to think of the fight against slavery. You knew this fight was not going to be over straight away, but you didn’t change the argument.”

> Direct Action has won a prominent place in activists’ toolkit — Asad Rahman: “What’s interesting is that similar things are happening on the streets of Spain, Greece and Italy. It’s too early to know how all this will pan out but I suspect we will see a new generation emerge at least comfortable with the idea of direct action.”

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This entry was posted on July 15, 2011 by in climate change, environmental activism, information counterpower, NGO counterpower, political action and tagged .
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