Checking the Temperature of Climate Change Activism in 2016
We hung out with some eco-warriors as they shut down a Manchester power station.
When world leaders stood, hand in hand, grinning, at the close of the Paris climate talks in December, for a moment the darkness of impending climate change armageddon seemed to have lifted. After decades of global warming, fossil fuel depletion and general despair, 2015 saw 195 countries agree to reduce their carbon output, and to do their best to keep global warming "to well below 2 degrees." Finally, humanity had pulled together to solve the biggest threat to the future of mankind.
So why did I find myself shivering in the sub-zero temperatures of suburban Manchester on Saturday morning, joining some eco-warriors from Reclaim The Power on their first action of 2016? I was tagging along with activists planning to shut down the building of the new Carrington power station, a gas-fuelled plant being built by Carlton Power that should be up and running by the end of the year –one of 14 new gas-powered stations planned in the UK.
"There's a massive discrepancy in the rhetoric between what governments say, and go on to do," Liz told me, as we drove up and down the industrial street, looking for the pre-arranged meeting point. Unfortunately, Liz's opinion isn't unfounded: the COP 21 agreement wasn't legally binding, it doesn't kick in until 2020, and scientists have even argued the emissions cuts promised from that point are "wholly insufficient".
While COP21 may have failed to achieve much in the conference halls, it did bring people together on the streets. "For us, Paris let us come together, and remind each other there are networks around the world committed to stopping climate change, but it was never going to be a place that changed the world," said Liz.
So Paris was a flop. Back in London, during the first few weeks of 2016, the government has forged ahead with slashing solar subsidies, putting 20,000 solar jobs are at risk. Then there's the leaked letter from the energy secretary, Amber Rudd, that outlines how we're already failing to meet out legally binding EU renewables targets for 2020. We've also just had the green light for fracking under British national parks, and seen the Tories axe a carbon capture and storage (CCS) project promised in their 2015 manifesto. The Government has even failed, on all counts, to achieve its own self-set targets for the reduction of carbon emissions, domestic flights, and water usage. It doesn't bode well.
Liz and the other activists taking part in the stunt now see the battleground at the sites of extraction, or, as she put it, "in the places where communities are getting trashed".
In the interests of security, phones weren't allowed on the action, so meeting up in the darkness with the various groups involved was a challenge in itself, not least because I was certain at one point we made our way past a group of doggers, with discussions of fracking liable to be misinterpreted.
Arriving at the entrance to the power station, the action was pretty simple: a handful of scaffolds tied together and plonked in the middle of the road, blockading it, while a guy scaled to the top.
The climbing guy – Nico – then sat on top, waving a banner and joyfully bellowing about reclaiming the power. The banner read, "Flood level 2050?", making the point that it would not be great if we all drown thanks to climate change. The road was blocked to large vehicles, shutting the construction down for a while.
"We have no other choice than to put our bodies on the line," Nico shouted down to me.
To get some more context about why environmentalists would target a gas power station, I spoke Daisy Sands, the head of Greenpeace's Energy Campaign. She told me something just doesn't add up. "The new goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by the second half of the century effectively means we need to phase out fossil fuels – the easiest to cut – by 2050." And yet, these new power stations in Carrington are set be in full swing by that point.
Gas might be seen as a cleaner fossil fuel, but at the Paris summit, energy company Statoil's Head of Sustainability Communication appeared to admit that methane leaked during natural gas extraction makes its overall impact as a greenhouse gas comparable to that of coal.
"Closing down these sites across the UK is an important weapon in our armory, and hits them where it hurts. What else can we do?" Nico asked.
The issue is not getting people to see that there's a problem. The government is supposedly on board, too. "I believe man-made climate change is one of the most serious threats that this country and this world faces," said David Cameron in 2014.
But the environmentalists I spoke to thought it was all talk and no action. "Paris hasn't produced a strong agreement," Nico said from his perch, as the sun came up. "We've had a strong climate change act in the country for the last ten years which is stronger than this new global agreement, and we've not seen anything at all under this government."
Just an hour away, in the parish of Upton, near Chester, local residents have been resisting in a way that doesn't involve them sitting in the cold at the top of a tripod. In April 2014, on hearing news that exploratory drilling was set to go ahead in this small town, a protest camp was set up to put an end to the possibility of drilling. A hefty police operation and eviction closed the camp down last week.
A crowd of close to 400 were milling around at the village hall when I turned up on Saturday, comprised of a mixed group of locals and campaigners from across the UK preparing for another anti-fracking demonstration.
"My house is 462 metres away from where they're intending to drill," complained Phil Combe, manning the tombola. "Listen, I'm not an eco-warrior by any means, but I've got a vested interest in knowing what exactly drilling entails, and I just don't want to see fracking happen here."
The challenges facing climate activism in 2016 are as difficult ever before. While almost 90 percent of Brits believe climate change is happening, with 84 percent saying humanity is to blame, public consensus on the issue just isn't translating into government action.
Large-scale protests to raise awareness are of limited value when everyone already agrees, and direct actions against specific targets fail to create broader structural change.
"Ultimately our fate will be decided over the coming decades by the collective courage of humanity," Daisy Sands at Greenpeace argues. "It is when people have joined campaigns and decided to step out of their comfort zone to take direct action together and force the wheels of power grind to a halt that meaningful changes really begins to happen."
At Carrington, the scaffold was taken down after about a day's disruption. The workers I met seemed happy enough with an excuse for some time off.
Reclaim the Power have promised 2016 will see a groundswell of action, "doing more for climate justice in one year than our government has in the last 21". With the government failing, flooding increasing, fracking sites on the up, and no sign of a plan to deal with climate change, it could be the actions of ecowarriors atop scaffolding and locals chatting in village halls that stop the planet going to shit.
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