Will protests make us listen?

Heathrow's climate change protesters turned their attention to oil companies, carbon offsetting businesses and Sizewell's nuclear power stations yesterday.

Heathrow's climate change protesters turned their attention to oil companies, carbon offsetting businesses and Sizewell's nuclear power stations yesterday. But will this type of “direct action” have any long-term effect on our behaviour and that of our politicians? Sheena Grant reports.

ENVIRONMENTALIST Rupert Read quotes an ancient Kenyan proverb to get across the reasons why we all need to take climate change more seriously, throw away our plane tickets and opt for holidays closer to home.

“The world was not given to us by our parents; it was loaned to us by our children,” he says.

Put like that, how could anyone argue; who would want to jeopardise the future of their children, grandchildren and countless generations further down the line for the short-term pleasure a week or two in the Mediterranean sunshine might bring?


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The problem for those in the Green movement is that the answer is still, it seems, too many of us. Despite all the evidence on climate change, we just can't - or won't - take our collective heads out of the holiday sand dunes and change our behaviour enough to reverse the damage we've done.

Of course, it's not all about jetting off to far-flung corners of the globe, but that's a big part of it, as the campaigners are busy reminding us. Emissions from aviation fuel use more than doubled in the 15 years to 2005 and this summer will be remembered as much for the climate change protests that have marked the last few days as for the unremitting but not unrelated rainfall.

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Campaigners who have spent the last week opposing a third runway at Heathrow Airport marked the end of their demonstration by targeting other businesses across the UK yesterday, including Sizewell's nuclear power stations.

Organisers of the Camp for Climate Action said five people blockaded the main gate outside Sizewell A and B just before 8am by locking their arms inside concrete barrels.

Protesters targeted Sizewell - also identified as the possible site for a third nuclear plant - because they wanted to oppose the myth that nuclear power is “carbon neutral” and a solution to climate change. One of them, Adam Conway, said: “To expand nuclear power in response to climate change would be to jump out of the frying pan and into the fire.”

In London, eight protesters super-glued themselves to the front of the oil company BP's headquarters and 20 activists demonstrated outside the offices of Bridgepoint Capital, owners of Leeds Bradford Airport.

Carbon offsetting businesses, which allow companies and individuals to pay someone else to reduce the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere on their behalf, were also singled out. In Oxford, campaigners entered the offices of the carbon offset company Climate Care and handed in a parcel of fish, to symbolise a “red herring”.

Protester Joss Garman said: “We're doing it because Climate Care is misleading the public. It's like being a member of the RSPCA then going home and kicking a dog.”

Over the weekend, campaigners also targeted Norwich Airport in support of the Heathrow protests, staging what they called an “aviation information campaign”, handing out leaflets to passengers and talking to them about alternative modes of travel to European destinations.

University of East Anglia lecturer Dr Read, who is the Green Party's lead candidate for the eastern region in the next European elections and worked with the Clinton presidential campaign whilst completing his Ph.D in the US, said the protests represented solidarity with the Heathrow activists.

“What campaigners are trying to do is consolidate a movement that more and more people are getting involved with,” he said. “Two million people marched through London to protest at the Iraq war and that is what we need to be aiming for in future marches on climate change.

“To that end it is crucial that we have a stronger electoral presence. The Iraq protests did not stop the war because it did not have the votes in parliament. We need to have more people elected and that is how we will achieve longer term success.

“The issues surrounding climate change do fit into issues that are important to people - for example, the flooding we have seen this summer and in other instances, drought. This is the result of climate chaos and meddling with the Earth's temperature. East Anglia is facing periodic flooding but also longer-term drought. It is a question of thinking ahead.”

Most of us accept that's true but the campaigners have a very difficult problem to address if they are going to make us vote for them en masse - how to slam shut the Pandora's Box that has opened up the globe through the miracle of cheap air travel, car ownership, year-round fruit and vegetables on our supermarket shelves and every energy-sapping mod-con and labour-saving device technology has to offer.

The answer, according to Dr Read, is to accentuate the positive and show people that the policy changes that will save the planet can also improve their lives.

“People want more secure, stronger local communities,” he said. “They want to buy local produce from local shops, more time with their families and local services. These things go hand-in-hand with reducing carbon emissions. It is not a question of sacrifice; it is a question of what you gain.”

The Government claims the UK is on track to surpass Kyoto Protocol targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But it admits more needs to be done to meet more challenging domestic targets to cut CO2 gases by 20% below 1990 levels by 2010 and put the UK on a path to achieve a 60% reduction by 2050.

Aviation emissions have continued to increase - up 7.1% on domestic flights between 2004 and 2005 and 5.7% on international travel. Between 1990 and 2005, emissions from aviation fuel use more than doubled.

Mr Read said the Government needed to stop subsidies on air travel. He also called on people to change the way they think about holidays and travel.

“I am going on holiday later this week on the north Norfolk coast,” he said. “Ok, we are not getting the best weather this year but we won't have any queuing at airports and it is one of a huge number of amazing places we have right on our doorstep.

“We are in a long-term emergency and before travelling, people need to ask themselves, is my journey really necessary? If it is, then they need to think very carefully about their means of travel.”

He advocates a system of carbon rationing as the only fair way of getting people to cut their emissions, stopping new runways, airport expansion, the road-building programme and ending Government “bank-rolling” of nuclear energy.

“I think people are getting the message and I believe we are going to see Green MPs elected as well as a significant increase in the number of MEPs. It is not happening as fast as we would like and one reason for that is that rich industries and big corporations have something of a stranglehold on the finances of our political system.

“It is up to all of us to decide what kind of lives we want and what kind of world we want to bequeath. Evidence suggests that an increasing number of people are altering their behaviour.

“These protests will help consolidate the movement against climate change, heighten awareness and engage in the sort of dialogue with the public that is necessary.”

Factfile

The Earth's climate has been relatively stable since the end of the last ice age - about 10,000 years ago but now the average global temperature is rising. The 20th century was the warmest for 1000 years - there was 0.6C of warming - and the 1990s were the warmest decade for 100 years.

There is also evidence that rainfall patterns are changing, sea levels are rising, glaciers retreating, arctic sea-ice thinning and incidence of extreme weather increasing in some parts of the world.

The UK Climate Impacts Programme, based at Oxford University, predicts that in the East of England average daily temperature could rise by as much as 6C by 2080 in a high emissions scenario; summer rainfall could fall by as much as 45% and winter rainfall increase by 30%.

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