Sunday, 30 August 2009

From margin to mainstream

Once seen as outsiders, green protest groups now have a big influence on government policy
Jonathan Leake
For Ed Miliband it was a moment of acute embarrassment. What he needed, the environment secretary had told a recent press conference, was a “mass mobilisation”, with green activists taking to the streets to put pressure on the government. This, he said, would give ministers the political space they needed to get tough on climate change.
It sounded exciting: a senior minister encouraging protest as a way of promoting rapid political change. But then came the awkward question.
“Wasn’t that exactly what the climate protesters tried to do in the recent London G20 talks?” Miliband was asked. “And didn’t that end in the police killing a bystander and sending the riot squad into a peaceful demonstration?”
A red-faced Miliband blustered: “Er ... that’s sub judice and we can’t possibly discuss it. Let’s take another question.” And he moved swiftly on.
Miliband’s awkward moment, at the launch of the government’s plans for the United Nations climate talks in December in Copenhagen, was an acute illustration of the difficult relationship between politics and protesters, such as the climate campers on Blackheath this weekend. Politicians might love some action on the streets when it’s in support of one of their pet causes — but they also fear losing power and control.
As the climate camp movement has taken off, some have suggested that Labour is struggling to resolve the dilemma. The hundreds of scruffy protesters camped out at places such as Drax power station, Heathrow, and now Blackheath, may not look like much but they have a cause and a level of sympathy that could prove powerful.
History shows that what may appear marginal protests can bring about significant social change. The campers’ predecessors, such as the suffragettes, or the anti-poll tax movement, succeeded in ways that still resonate through society today. Tony Juniper, former director of Friends of the Earth, believes governments and corporations would hardly act at all on environmental issues were it not for protest.
“One of the first environment campaigns was the one led by Greenpeace against whaling,” he said. “Killing great whales seemed normal, but the campaign changed the way people think and led to the ban on hunting that still holds today.
“Recently British environmentalists led campaigns to halt road-building and block GM crops. These were issues people had hardly thought about till we raised them, so those protests had a huge psychological impact.”
For Greenpeace, the idea that protest can bring about change is even more central to its work. It has staged direct actions against oil companies and power generators, notably at Kingsnorth coal-fired power station, which it shut down in October 2008 when protesters scaled a chimney. Although it closed the plant only temporarily, Greenpeace believes its action has made people much more aware of the link between burning coal and global warming.
John Sauven, director of Greenpeace UK, said: “The road protesters who tried to stop the Twyford Down bypass [in the early 1990s] could be seen as failing because it was built in the end, but in the longer term the roads protests forced the government to completely rethink its entire attitude to road-building. That kind of long-term change is what protest is really about.”
Recent policy shifts by all main political parties suggest the greens are beginning to have just such an impact. Four years ago, for example, the general election manifestos of both main parties had turned environmental problems into a non-issue. Labour’s election manifesto made climate change a subsection of foreign policy, while domestic green issues were buried at the end of chapter seven, after London’s Olympic bid. The party had refused to consider a climate change bill, a stance it maintained until 2007.
By contrast, Britain now has a legal commitment to cut emissions and the impact is being felt by all. This week alone sees an end to sales of some types of incandescent lightbulb, which the European Union is intent on phasing out.
It is a measure of how much influence green campaigners are exerting that Greg Clark, Conservative shadow energy and climate secretary and the man most likely to take over from Miliband after the next election, suggests the climate campers are pushing at an already open door. He said: “Britain already has one of the most progressive attitudes on climate of any country. In Copenhagen the pressure should be put on other governments. I am not sure what protest can achieve in Britain.”
Sauven agrees that Copenhagen is crucial — but for a different reason: “Politicians should think about what happens if they fail to deliver an agreement in Copenhagen to cut emissions. If that happens then people will lose all faith in the political process — and protest will be all that is left.”