There Is Hope

Ana, a member of the Arctic Sunrise crew shows defiance in Russian court

Ana, a member of the Arctic Sunrise crew shows defiance in Russian court

This morning I’m sat at my desk at Greenpeace UK where I work as volunteer to the Outreach team. Yesterday, Russian authorities started charging the Arctic 30 with piracy, a charge that could carry up to 15 years in jail. On walls all around the building there are posters that read ‘Free the Arctic 30’. Barely 5 meters from me is the desk of one of the activists being detained. Stuck to his monitor is a sign that simply says ‘Free Frank’.

When the news broke that our activists were being charged I know I wasn’t the only one who felt suddenly sick. Our CEO, Kumi Naidoo, who led a similar action against Gazprom last year and came away with hypothermia, described the situation as the greatest challenge we’ve faced since the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior. Seeing the breaking news that our friends and colleagues have been charged with piracy, I couldn’t disagree with Kumi. There is something unreal about this. Something unprecedented.

Further down my screen however, there is a bitter-sweet human rights story. Herman Wallace, who has been kept in solitary confinement in the US for the best part of 41 years, has been freed. Herman has terminal cancer and will see out the rest of his life in hospital – but it won’t be in prison and it won’t be on his own. A few months ago I was working at Amnesty alongside the campaigners who worked tirelessly for this result. I can imagine the mixed feelings. The elation, the frustration, the sadness. I can almost hear the emotion in the text on my page as they write words that they never thought they would write: ‘Herman is free’.

Thinking of those campaigners, I feel hopeful again. I know that for all of the awful wrongs committed against the environment, against people, and against our future, there are individuals out there willing to work themselves to the bone to make a difference. Who will try and try and never give up. For all of the world’s horrors, there are people like our activists taking a stand – people willing to put themselves on the line. I’ve been lucky enough to meet and work with some of these people, the kind who will not take no for an answer and who value doing what is right and what is just above the value they place on themselves.

Last night, still reeling from the news about the piracy charges, I headed down to the monthly meeting of the South West London Greenpeace group that I’m currently helping coordinate. I felt down, I felt heavy hearted, but I was met by a chorus of indignant volunteers who had already heard the news and who had only become stronger in their resolve. Their combined spirit lifted me up – it gave me hope. This is what makes me feel strong rather than cowed. I know who we are, how powerful we are. I know how hard and how tirelessly we can fight – and I’m not isolating these feelings to people who work for Greenpeace – I mean it about all of the hundreds of thousands of people taking a stand or doing something to make the world a better place, like the campaigners at Amnesty, or the local groups volunteers at last night’s meeting. The world is full of amazing people with strength and courage, doing amazing things. And There Is Hope.

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The Battle for Balcombe: The Blockade

ImageEarlier this week, I had the honour to be one of a group that blockaded the entrance to Cuadrilla’s test drilling site at Balcombe along with Green MP Caroline Lucas, who was subsequently arrested.  The blockade was one of many non-violent direct actions that took place on Monday in response to Cuadrilla’s plans to carry out exploratory drilling in the area, and the failure of local government to respect the wishes of a community strongly opposed to fracking.

But the protest in Balcombe is about more than just fracking.  Balcombe has come to represent the frontline in our fight against climate change in the UK. The current government’s single-minded, self-interested, sociopathic focus on pursuing a dash for gas will cause it to break its legally binding climate change targets.  Balcombe is a line we have drawn in the sand.  It is about rebellion.  Protestors from all across the country are saying no; responding to a situation that demands action from us all.

So on Monday I blockaded a road to prevent trucks from being able to access Cuadrilla’s test site – and hundreds of other protestors took action along the road, around the site and across the country to show Cuadrilla, and the government, what democracy really looks like.  We sat, arms linked together, chanting, singing, under the baking sun, surrounding 4 others who were locked to a wheelchair in the centre of the group.

Although the police had managed to separate us from the rest of the protestors, I could see a further blockade of people between our group and the main gate, and on the road behind me demonstrators sang and danced in the face of the police line.  They kept our spirits up and delayed the police from being able to remove us.  Just after 1pm the police charged them down in an attempt to clear the road and further divide us, but they stayed, kettled on the verge, singing in support.

When the police removed us, five hours after our blockade had begun, using pressure points to break our chain and arresting some for obstruction, the job had been done.  No trucks entered the site on Monday – and, in response to the Reclaim the Power protest camp coming to Balcombe, drilling was suspended for 5 days.  Cuadrilla and the government have been sent a clear message of defiance: we are not going to simply sit back and accept this.  They know they have a fight on their hands.

I left Balcombe feeling more hopeful than I have done in a long while – a feeling I don’t think I’m alone in experiencing.  I felt like the movement was growing and re-galvanising, charging up with energy that had been lost.  Inadvertently, by pursuing fracking, the government have kicked a hornet’s nest. The ‘battle for Balcombe’ has put climate change back on the agenda.  It’s uniting people of different issues and putting protests back on the front page.

A government is answerable to its citizens, and in our country, while our government continues to pursue fossil fuels with wilful negligence; there will be need for protest, resistance and civil disobedience.  They have been forewarned.  Balcombe is just the beginning.

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Obama Speaks

1003852_439065142868343_1321360039_nLast week President Obama delivered an hour-long speech on the subject of climate change.  Speaking at Georgetown University the President covered the history of climate science, the importance of an international agreement and the moral imperative to act.  Standing in sweltering heat, Obama delivered his new climate policy for America with trademark skill.  It sounded good, strong, and clearly resonated with the young audience he was addressing.  But what did it actually mean?

While we have to be pleased that climate change is back on the agenda in the United States, Obama is viewed with scepticism by those who have experienced having their hopes dashed.  After the failure of Copenhagen 2009, a COP* which was viewed at the time as the chance to do something about climate change, Obama has continued to disappoint – well demonstrated by the fact that he only mentioned climate change once during the 2012 Presidential elections.

But even without the understandable once-bitten-twice-shy uncertainty with which environmentalists view Obama, bits of his speech seemed to flatly contradict his strong opening declaration for action on climate change.  Obama boasted record levels of US oil production and natural gas mining.  He skirted around the Keystone XL pipeline issue.  And, it bears repeating – he boasted about increased US oil production levels.

Hopefully, the reason for my incredulity regarding Obama’s statements on oil is well appreciated by those reading.  Oil?  Really?  After describing how climate change is already having multiple and serious effects on the citizens of America, never mind the rest of the world, and strongly asserting the need for reduction in CO2 to prevent run away climate change, he brags about increased oil production in the US?

As for natural gas – let’s examine what has been said and compare to what has been happening behind the scenes.  Obama was proud to announce that the US has been cutting its CO2 emissions.  In fact, as he was pleased to repeat, the US has been the biggest cutter of CO2 emissions since 2006.  And that’s true; the US has been cutting its emissions.  It’s been doing so by extracting shale gas and burning gas instead of coal.  As gas is cleaner than coal this transition means that US CO2 emissions have gone down – but at the same time the US has been selling its coal to other nations, including our own, causing our emissions to go up.

So, while the President can brag about his own country’s achievements, he appears to have forgotten that the atmosphere is a global commons, and that there is a certain degree of hypocrisy in going green while profiting by selling your coal on to other nations – like gleefully boasting about getting clean while pushing drugs to other addicts – you continue to be part of the problem.

One thing this does achieve is that it places the US in an even greater bargaining position for COP 21**, and that could be cause for concern.  Although the President spoke of the need for international action, he also talked about the need for developing countries to take action, and that’s a sticking point that has been the premature end of many a past negotiation.  While Obama may have better relations with China and India, he now finds himself in an even stronger position to call the shots at Paris, and if he calls for the kind of unilateral action that is seen as unfair on developing nations, negotiations could flounder once again.

Of course, there is plenty of reason to speculate that the bits of Obama’s speech about oil and natural gas were aimed at Republicans.  Although perhaps a braver man might have talked more about decarbonisation and renewables, it would not have been a wiser man, and Obama did not get to be President of the United States, a nation of such polarised opinion, without learning how to play to different audiences.  But while we can hope that these more ambiguous parts of his speech were mere lip service and that his other strategies, including ending fossil fuel subsidies and new regulations for power stations, are being used to subtly undermine the fossil fuel industry and give renewables the edge – we are still going to have to wait and see.  And time is not on our side.

So, Obama continues to be a wait-and-see President.  For those of us who wanted clear and decisive action, this speech is probably the best we’re going to get.  At least there was no underestimation of the problem and he viciously refuted climate scepticism with a single you’re-not-worth-my-time kind of blow.  But while he allows debate to continue on the Keystone XL issue, and talks about natural gas as though he’s going to herald in a new ‘cleaner’ fossil fuel age, I don’t think he has my bet.


* Conference of the Parties

*COP 21 –- Conference of the Parties 22 scheduled to take place in Paris -December 2015

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Records, Rebellion and Resistance

The spring of 2013 has been turbulent for those of us campaigning on climate change.  On the 10th of May, global C02 levels exceeded a concentration of 400ppm* for the first time in human history.  Then, rebel MPs missed out on achieving enough votes to secure green amendments to the energy bill by the narrowest of margins.  Then, finally, on the 6th of June, the 21 No Dash For Gas activists who shut down West Burton power station for a week at the end of 2012 escaped prison sentences.  Looking back, almost every emotion seems to have been encapsulated in that short space of time – from alarm, fear and gravitas, through frustration, disappointment and anger, to elation, vindication and renewed determination.

Reaching a global concentration of 400ppm is lodged in my mind as a momentous event, even though the levels of C02 in the arctic had passed 400ppm a while ago.** Maybe passing 400ppm should be viewed with no more significance than being at 390, or even 399ppm – but somehow, rather like landmark birthdays, 400ppm meant something – something momentous, something frightening.  The chemical composition of our atmosphere has changed so much during our lifetimes that it is reaching levels it hasn’t been at since the Pliocene, 3-5 million years ago.  To think that we are now living in an atmosphere radically different to the one we were born in is startling.  We have changed the chemical composition of the particles of our universe.***

ImageIn the beginning of June, however, this startling reality was overlooked by members of parliament who appear to live in an alternate universe from the one the rest of us inhabit.  Instead, from their parallel reality (presumably still graced with non-dangerous levels of CO2 in the atmosphere – perhaps 350ppm or maybe even 280ppm – the level our reality was at before the industrial revolution) MPs voted against putting a decarbonisation target in the energy bill.  David Davis MP, once candidate for Tory leadership, suggested during the debate that climate change might be a load of ‘hogswash’ and insult was added to injury in the following weeks as Owen Paterson, Secretary of State for the Environment, revealed himself to be a climate sceptic.  We looked on with disbelief and anger – aware that, if the situation wasn’t so serious, maybe having a sceptic as Secretary for the Environment might have been amusing.   Unable to be moved by the satire, it felt like watching Nero fiddle while Rome burns.

But while MPs continue to escape reality, it would appear that the courts are not. Days after the disappointment of the energy bill the No Dash for Gas activists escaped becoming the first climate change activists to go to jail.  Instead, while sentencing them to community service, the judge remarked on the impressive characters of the defendants and paid tribute to the fact that their actions had been ones of integrity.  Echoing the Kingsnorth**** case, the judgment demonstrated the fact that actions of civil disobedience in the face of climate change are not seen to be disproportionate.

So, it’s been a turbulent time of mixed emotions – but one overriding message persists: Imagethat we have to keep fighting.  While the powers that be continue to shirk their responsibility, we will have to do what is in our power to address the situation, before the ‘landmark birthdays’ become truly terrifyingly irreversible.

*ppm: parts per million

**Concentration of CO2 is higher in the Arctic.

*** I am using the word universe in a metaphorical sense to suggest that the Earth and its atmosphere is our universe – which it is for the vast majority of us who will never go outside of it.  I am not suggesting we are changing the chemical composition of the Universe.

****The Kingsnorth Six were a group of Greenpeace activists who shut down Kingsnorth power plant, a coal burning powerstation in 2007.

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BREAKING: ‘Today, we have an Authoritative Early Warning System…’

I often think about writing a futuristic novel about climate change.  Reading these words for the first time yesterday*, I felt like I knew where I would start.  You can imagine them being used in a Hollywood blockbuster, can’t you?  In a scene where, having identified a threat to humankind, the President of America stands up and announces, in a powerful and passionate voice, that: ‘an Authoritative Early Warning System is alerting us to a threat to our very future… but we’re going to fight back.  We are going to survive…’  The rest of the film is just as easy to imagine.  It would be dedicated to telling the story of our rapid and courageous response to the threat to our civilisation; a valiant struggle, at the end of which a human race we can be proud of survives.

Unfortunately, however, these words were uttered in a fairly different setting from the one imagined above.  In fact, in my futuristic book, the survivors of the climate catastrophe would see these words spoken on a grainy TV while trying to piece together the mystery of what the hell happened to ‘the great civilisation’.  And what they would see is an imagine of British Prime Minster Margaret Thatcher speaking in 1990 after the first meeting of the newly formed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  Why?  Because that is, in fact, the truth.  These words are not ‘breaking news’.  They were breaking news 23 years ago.
‘What happened next?’ one of the survivors, a child perhaps, would probably ask.  ‘What did they do?  Why did it still fail?’  A hush would fall on the circle of people, none wanting to say those horrible words.  And then finally, one of them would spit out the truth, eyes fixed on the dusty ground: ‘Because they didn’t do anything.  They didn’t do anything at all.’

So, what’s the life expectancy of an ‘Authoritative Early Warning System’?  Well, whatever it is, it certainly isn’t 23 years, is it?  You don’t hear your smoke alarm going off and let 23 minutes, let alone 23 years, go by before you get out of the house or call for the fire brigade.  Yet here we are 23 years later, our Early Warning System still stuttering away in the background as we go about our daily lives, attributing it to tinnitus maybe – or some kind of white noise.  In a huge turn up for the books, climate change is in the news today, because of the awful cold weather we have been having (linked to the melting of ice in the Arctic), but this is a rarity.  In fact, just last week the Daily Mail published an article entitled: ‘The Great Green Con no 1: the hard proof that finally shows global warming forecasts that are costing us billions are wrong’.  Of course, it’s not ‘hard-proof’.  It’s nothing of the sort.

Also, last week Michael Gove MP, Secretary of State for Education in the UK, decided that children under the age of 14 shouldn’t have to learn about climate change**.  It’s a bizarre thing reality, and what you can pick and choose from it.  Both of these cases seem to show a pure denial of facts, and an irresponsible desire to present an inaccurate world view to those we believe we can influence, creating the kind of misrepresentation and manipulation of peoples’ doubt that has allowed 23 years to go by without any effective action being taken in response to our ‘Authoritative Early Warning System’.  This is why some of us have been waiting for what gets termed a ‘Pearl Harbour’ moment.  Something of such great magnitude that the world couldn’t possibly fail to wake up and tune in to reality.  Many of us thought that Hurricane Sandy was going to do it – and it did force President Obama to acknowledge climate change after an election campaign that had borne only the vaguest of mentions of it, but Sandy hasn’t had the myth-busting effect we were after, and it hasn’t stirred the global leaders into action. In fact, current UK Prime Minster David Cameron’s advisors are said to have blocked climate change from appearing on the agenda for the next G8 summit.  Apparently, they’re going to talk about tax instead.

And so, reality continues to stumble.  Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that the Hollywood version of events given above is so easy for us to imagine.  We’ve been brought up with these scripts in our minds, and images of unrealistic leaders and heros in a world without limits, that cannot possibly fail.  But the more that we fantasise, listen to the Daily Mail, make allowances for Michael Gove, and block out reality, the more the Hollywood version of events becomes increasingly unlikely to happen.  And as our Early Warning System continues to drone away a scenario, much more like my futuristic book, creeps up on us.

* I read this statement for the first time yesterday as I started reading Jeremy Leggett’s book ‘The Carbon War’.

** Sign a petition against this outrageous decision on 38 Degrees’s website.

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Civil Disobedience. Or, Being ‘Extreme’

Do you ever question the rules?  Most of us are willing to accept that we are born into a system of rules and regulations that are created for the cohesion of society – but behind our system of governance lies a history of constant questioning.  Political philosophers have struggled with the idea of governance for thousands of years.  ‘Man is born free,’ stated Rousseau ‘yet everywhere he is in chains’.

Then there are those who believe that we need the rule of law to stop us from being at each other’s throats.  Hobbes famously said that life in the state of nature (a world without governance) would be ‘savage, brutish and short’.   Although this might sound a bit heavy handed, most of us seem to be in some kind of agreement that we should come together to live – and that the communities we form should be held together by, at least a basic, set of laws.  But the problem of who decides the laws, who wields that power, and who has the power to implement them, is as old as our societies.

It is somewhat predictable, although still strange, then, that those of us who are willing to question the law – to push it and break it – become known as extremists.   I’ve been referred to as extreme, or as holding extreme views, twice recently.  Once was when I gave a scientifically backed account of how awful climate change could possibly be.  ‘The views you are putting forward sound extreme’ I was told; not in a hostile way, but in the way a person often responds when they hear something shocking they hadn’t heard before.  ‘Yes,’ I replied.  ‘They might sound extreme, but not unrealistic.  This is a scientific opinion’.

The other occasion was quite different.  It was about Greenpeace activists, a group I am proud to be a tiny part of, being extreme people.  I responded with the most measured response I could give.  I don’t believe I am an extreme person.  I’m a white, middle-class (welcome to the environmental movement) intelligent person who cares about our planet.  Yes, I’m a vegetarian.  No, I’m not a vegan (yet).  I am not a hippy, and I don’t like being called one.  And most of the people who I take action with are the same.  People in good, interesting jobs; doing something for society, or working in local government or teaching, or doing scientific PhDs.  Not extreme people, just people who care.

ImageSo why are we called extremists?  Is it simply because we are prepared to break the law, or is it because we are prepared to break the law in the face of what are, sometimes, invisible or distant threats?  Maybe it’s easier to understand people taking action to save their local environments – like the people of Kilcommon, Ireland, featured in the documentary The Pipe, who have been resisting Shell’s plans to come on to their land and into their fishing grounds to drill for gas and set up a pipeline over their countryside.  They’ve been battling Shell for years now, risking arrest, going to jail and then returning to keep up the fight.  Their government hasn’t helped them stand up for their rights, so they’ve seen fit to break the rule of law to protect the land they have lived on for generations.  Breaking the law might seem like an extreme thing to do but maybe, in this case, it sounds like the only rational thing you could do.

What about Grandparents for a Safer Earth?  In this video four people over the age of 60, with the future lives of their grandchildren sited as their main concern, occupied their local Barclay’s bank in Bristol to show opposition to the banking giant’s role in funding fossil fuels.  After a four hour, peaceful protest they were removed by police – but not arrested.  They could have been arrested though, for trespass or obstruction.   Are these people really extreme?  They may be going to lengths many of us wouldn’t dream of, and taking risks – but does that make them extreme?

ImageFinally, what about the No Dash For Gas activists?  21 people who scaled West Burton power station last year and spent 7 days living in the chimney flumes, shutting down the plant’s operation and stopping 19,117 tonnes of C02 from being pumped into the atmosphere.  They’re currently facing prison and are being sued by EDF for £5 million – are they extremists?  The actions they took might seem like the most extreme of the ones I’ve described here, but are they really that much different from Grandparents for a Safer Earth?   Both groups trespassed and obstructed normal business for the same cause.  And what about similarities between them and the people of Kilcommon?  The people of Kilcommon might be protecting their own land, something tangible and solid in front of their eyes, but the No Dash for Gas activists are trying to protect something we all depend on.  Something that is theirs, as well as yours, and mine.  A shared commons we all rely on that is being destroyed by those who make the laws and those who wield the power.  Is trying to protect that really extreme?

Maybe the fact is that we live in extreme times.  After all, the scientific opinion I was recently voicing about climate change sounded extreme – even catastrophic.  Extreme times may call for extreme measures.  But, if that’s the case, the actions I’ve described should be becoming commonplace, and we should be seen as the normal ones.  What’s extreme about fighting for your rights, or fighting for your future?  That sounds perfectly normal to me.

The truth is, we would live in a vastly different society if more of us were willing to take actions like the people of Kilcommon, or Grandparents for a Safer Earth, or No Dash for Gas.  But until taking action becomes commonplace, I suppose I’ll have to accept sometimes being called extreme.  And being lumped in with those people who understand that crossing lines can be the right, and only thing, to do when you have to protect something important.

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The Peak of Human Greed

The long debated question as to whether the climate will collapse before we run out of fossil fuel was dealt a final nail in the coffin this month by Bill McKibben in his article ‘Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math’ – published in Rolling Stone magazine.  Yes, the times they are a changing – climate change is getting on to the popular agenda, but could it really get more terrifying?  If you’re not scared already, you haven’t understood the implications of climate change.  (That, or maybe you’re the CEO of Shell and co. whose actions can only be an indication of a plan to survive by creating a world resembling something like Logan’s Run.)  But, McKibben is right; his article still has the power to scare even the most up-to-date environmentalist.

Here’s the terrifying ‘new math’: scientists estimate that we can still pour another 565 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere and still have a reasonably good chance of staying below the 2 degrees ‘safety’ threshold set at Copenhagen, described by one delegate as a ‘suicide pact’ for Africa.  The number that the fossil fuel giants are still planning to extract and burn, however, is 2,795 gigatons.  That’s five times higher than 565 gigatons – the ‘safe’ level, – a level at which nations disappear under the waves, thousands become climate refugees, and which results in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.

The truly scary thing about the figures is that the 2,795 gigatons that McKibben is talking about is not just the amount of fossil fuel left in the ground – he’s talking about reserves that are already part of future calculations.

‘[I]t’s already economically aboveground’ he explains – ‘it’s figured into share prices, companies are borrowing money against it, nations are basing their budgets on the presumed returns from their patrimony. It explains why the big fossil-fuel companies have fought so hard to prevent the regulation of carbon dioxide – those reserves are their primary asset’.

And by primary asset he means that giving up the reserves would cost them around 20 trillion dollars.  That’s what we’re up against.

In a way this changes nothing, but maybe it highlights just what we’re fighting against: human greed.  The greed being exercised in the case of climate change is almost beyond belief –to keep extracting and burning these fossil fuels makes no rational sense unless these people really have a burning desire to live in some kind of artificial dome while the rest of the world rips itself apart.  There is, literally, no future left in fossil fuels – all that is left is a catastrophe waiting to happen.

You would have thought we would have managed to work this out, yet here we are, sitting on the brink of calamity while a handful of men ruin the world.  There’s something frighteningly cruel about the situation: that the ‘pinnacle’ of evolution could ultimately have become powerful enough to destroy itself and almost everything else produced by millions of years of natural selection, but that thought in itself brings me some kind of reassurance.  It feels like a message telling us we could be more.

There is more to human beings than greed.  We’re capable of achieving the most amazing things.  I began this blog with the answer to a question about peak fuels and climate change but one question remains unanswered.  Are we strong enough to fight back – and are we strong enough to change?  We’ll know the answer soon enough…

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