Thinking about Climate Change Activism

A friend recently gave me a collection of speeches by Greta Thunberg called No One is Too Small to Make a Difference. I have read the first few and they prompted me to take a look at my website where I list 15 organisations I support, none of which are focused on climate change. That is not because I don’t consider it to be an important issue – on the contrary I think it is the most important issue of our time, and I have been active in this area with a number of organisations over the years. I suppose it was just that I couldn’t choose which one to highlight.

Going back to the start, I didn’t get involved in activism until the second half of the 1980s when I was doing post-graduate research in space plasma physics at Dartmouth Collage in the United States. At the time there was a student group called Dartmouth Community for Divestment which campaigned to get the college to divest from companies doing business in South Africa. As an international student I naturally fell in with some of the activists which lead me to start learning about US foreign policy in the Middle East and Central America. However, it was only shortly before returning to the UK that I first took part in an environmental protest – the April 1990 Earth Day Wall Street Action. But even then I don’t recall being aware of the climate change issue, which was apparently a minor concern, just one among many other ecological issues.

In July 1977, a senior scientist of Exxon James Black had reported to company executives that there was a general scientific agreement at that time that the burning of fossil fuels was the most likely manner in which mankind was influencing global climate change. So how is it that in 1990 there was so little awareness of the issue even amongst environmental activists? Well it seems that once Exxon realised the full implications they began downplaying the science in the same way that tobacco companies downplayed the link between cigarettes and lung cancer. They spent millions on what was basically a coverup of an inconvenient truth – this was the real climate change conspiracy.

Upon my return to the UK in June 1990 I moved back in with my parents and rather than attempting to get a job I “signed on the dole” and got involved as a volunteer with the Newham Monitoring Project and the Trafalgar Square Defendants Campaign. These things (as well as protesting the Gulf War) kept me occupied until I got a full time job as a scientist in March 1992 and it wasn’t until March 2001 that I remember becoming active again after reading about US rejection of the Kyoto treaty – no doubt due to oil industry lobbying.

My first major climate change protest was a 20 mile Long March to mark the first anniversary of the US rejection of Kyoto. We started at Exxon HQ in Leatherhead to highlight the company’s complicity and made it all the way to the US Embassy. This was organised by Campaign Against Climate Change which was basically being run by an incredibly dedicated activist called Phil Thornhill who had been holding a weekly vigil outside the Embassy. I can’t remember how I met him but it turned out that he was a fellow climber who knew Joe Simpson (Touching the Void). For the next few years I joined most CCC protests but also started doing stuff with Rising Tide UK – a group which was created in 2000 to carry out direct action against the root causes of climate change and work towards a fossil fuel free future. In 2003 I started riding with Critical Mass London and in 2004 I discovered rampART – a squatted social centre in East London.

By 2005 I was immersed in what I now thought of as the “anarchist scene” in London and ended up quitting my job (I was by then working as a Systems Administrator) in order to help organise and take part in the G8 Bike Ride. In June 2005 I was one of a group of about seventy cyclists that set off from London to ride to the G8 Summit in Scotland. Climate change is one of the issues we were highlighting. One of the best bits of kit we had on the G8 Bike Ride was a bicycle towed sound system called Pedals which I helped build. We towed it behind a tandem so that the stoker could also DJ as we rode. Pedals has been a big part of many actions since then and is amazingly still going. Following what we felt to be a successful ride some of us got together and formed a group called Bicyclology and our first project was a 2006 bike tour from London to Lancaster and onto the first Camp for Climate Action in Megawatt Valley near Leeds.

Along with other members of Bicycology I took part in two more Camps for Climate Action – at Heathrow in 2007 and Blackheath in 2009 but by 2010 they had basically run their course. By 2011 I had established myself as a self employed gardener but I still had enough spare time to get involved with things like Occupy London. However, the most significant thing I did that year was help establish a Hertfordshire cycling campaign called CycleHerts. Bicycology ceased to be active as a group in 2012, the same year in which Phil Thornhill stood down as national coordinator of Campaign Against Climate Change.

This was really a turning point for me because I narrowed my focus from climate change in general to the issue of sustainable transport and active travel, and also to things I could influence in my own area, Hertfordshire. This is how I now find myself as Secretary of CycleHerts, an active member of WelHatCycling, an East Herts route maintenance volunteer with Sustrans and Deputy Chair and cycling representative on Hertfordshire Local Access Forum. It seems to me that by specialising like this I have the best chance of achieving real change.

Nevertheless, when an old friend from Bicycology invited me to take part in last October’s Extinction Rebellion action in London I agreed. I was supposed to be with the XR Peace group but by the time I arrived their blockade had already been cleared by police so we linked up with the Global Justice group. I pitched my tent in St James Park, where I was reunited with Pedals (the sound system), which I took out to support various blockades. I ended up camping for two nights and on on the Wednesday I set up Pedals as a PA system for George Monbiot to give a talk to a packed marquee. It reminded me in many ways of the Climate Action Camps but this was mainly a new generation of young activists. There were also older seasoned activists and a lot of them were saying that XR had given them new hope after having almost given up trying to change anything.

It is amazing the progress that has been achieved. It used to be that whenever the BBC interviewed anyone about climate change they alway invited a denier to speak in the interests of “balance”, but in 2018 they told staff that this was not necessary, suggesting that allowing deniers to speak was like letting someone deny last week’s football scores. In January this year the BBC announced plans for a year-long series of special programming and coverage on climate change. I am no fan of Boris Johnson, and am not suggesting that anyone believe anything he says, but it is significant that on securing his recent general election victory he felt the need to pledge to make Britain the “cleanest, greenest” country on Earth. It is up to us keep up the pressure on him to make good on his promises.

The 2020 United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26 is to be held in Glasgow from 09-20 November this year and all sorts of groups will be mobilising to be there or otherwise put pressure on the parties to commit to ambitious plans. Time is running out, we need drastic global action to avoid catastrophe. So while I will be continuing with my own local action on sustainable transport (particularly cycling), I am also starting to think what I might do around COP26.

I realise this has been a rather long and rambling post. I don’t really expect anyone to have read the whole thing but I needed to get it down for my own benefit.

One response to “Thinking about Climate Change Activism

  1. Steve Clark

    Well I read it all! I have not been such an active campaigner, but I have been involved with Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth to a limited extent. Last year I went along to support the big London protests for a day and was also part of an XR event in Letchworth. I think we have to keep the pressure on the government as we know how they can be ‘all talk and no trousers’ (as Boris might say). XR need to tread a fine line as wrong moves could lose some of their public support.

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