Climate Camp: Savior of the Environmental Movement?

It was a different kind of protest. Instead of turning up at the latest G8 summit or AGM of a multinational and waving the banners of opposition, the protesters chose their own location.

They set up camp in the shadow of a controversial carbon emitter – such as Drax coal-fired power station – living as sustainably as possible before making a high-profile demonstration.

Drax, Heathrow and Kingsnorth [1] are now synonymous with climate change [2], in part due to the success of the protest camps of the past three years. But where did this powerful new movement come from?

Early inspiration

The Stirling Eco Village at the G8 summit in 2005 was the first in this wave of climate camp protests. Although much more of a formal arrangement than later ones, with the site chosen in agreement with Stirling Council, the camp and related direct action efforts provided the model for future protests.

‘[after Stirling] We had a sense that we were capable of doing much more than just reacting to the calendar of events,’ remembers Climate Camp protester Kevin Smith. ‘We could set our own agenda now.’

It was the following August of 2006 when the camp-and-protest model met its first big test. By all accounts the police were caught by surprise as protestors attempted to break into the UK’s biggest carbon polluter, the Drax coal-fired power station in West Yorkshire.

The decision in 2007 to set up camp next to Heathrow airport in protest at plans to build a third runway was seen as an inspired move. More than 2,000 people joined the week-long protest, and were duly followed by a large contingent of broadcast, online and print media that ensured round-the-clock coverage of the action.

Police response

However, the high-profile nature of both the Drax and Heathrow protests saw the police react with a much more hostile response to the Kingsnorth protest in August 2008.

‘At Drax the police were somewhat confused, but by Heathrow they had become much more strategic and at Kingsnorth they took that to a new level,’ said Kevin Smith.

That new level saw what even the police later called a ‘disproportionate’ response by Kent officers, including widespread stop and search, intimidation and sleep deprivation tactics.

Responding to criticism at the time, Police Minister Vernon Coaker claimed 70 officers had been injured tackling protesters but it later turned out that this figure was made up of entirely unrelated injuries including sunstroke and a suspected wasp sting.

In addition, a freedom of information request by the MP David Howarth found the police had confiscated items including blankets, balloons and a walking stick.

Kevin Smith believes the police scare tactics at Kingsnorth and G20 [3] earlier this year ultimately helped their cause.

‘The police actions had the effect of radicalising some otherwise mild-mannered activists. It inspired people to realise that sometimes you do have to stand up to the repressive police tactics like that,’ he said.

Limitations of protest

While Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and other campaign groups have welcomed the success of the Climate Camp protests, even going as far as organising talks at the Camps, they are more guarded about its direct action tactics.

‘Friends of the Earth supports people’s right to peaceful protest and believes that protests should be non-violent,’ is the official line from Mike Childs, Friends of the Earth’s Head of Climate Change.

Groups such as the Campaign Against Climate Change (CACC) worry that direct action marginalises the impact of the protest and the movement in general.*

CACC National coordinator Phil Thornhill said although the Camp benefited from respected individuals like MP Norman Baker turning up in support, its anarchist minority could lose it widespread support.

‘It is not so much that it is illegal but that at the heart of an anarchy-based philosophy is one that doesn’t admit the relevance of government. And a lot of people would think that government is the only body that can ultimately tackle climate change,’ he said.

Camp protestors say the majority of them are far from being against the political system.

‘When people come to climate camp the biggest thing they realise is that it’s full of ordinary people, with ordinary jobs who are not against the political system at all. Just frustrated by it,’ said Jess Gold, Friends of the Earth Campaigner and Camp protestor.

Global future

This year’s protest is set to be the biggest yet with more than 60 camps taking place around the world. As well as one in London, camps are being planned in Ireland, Wales and as far away as India and Brazil.

Earlier this week, around 150 people set up the Scotland camp near the site of a planned open-cast coal mine in Mainshill Wood in South Lanarkshire.

But even as it reaches global scale, organisers are already thinking beyond the camp protest idea.

‘The idea of climate camp is not to hold camps but to develop a social movement in this country. The most important thing is that we’re effective,’ said Kevin Smith.

by Tom Levitt

© 2009 Guardian News and Media Limited

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