Climate protest: rock the state, save the planet

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
29 April 2009

The British government has in 2008-09 reacted with notable vigour to a series of non-violent public actions and peaceful demonstrations over climate change. The character of the policing of these events suggests a high degree of national coordination stemming from a deep concern that they could escalate to the point of having a major political impact. Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001

There are many examples of the style of policing that is being applied. In August 2008, intensive and intimidating tactics - including the deployment of riot-squads from other regional forces - were used in policing a camp set up by climate-change protestors near a planned coal-fired power-station in Kent, southeast England. On 1 April 2009, a similarly peaceful climate-change camp in the City of London - close to but separate from the more widely publicised anti-G20 protests - was subject to repeated violence by heavily protected riot-police (see Chris Abbott, "Trapped and beaten by police in Climate Camp", 9 April 2009).

A few days later, a planned demonstration at another power-station near Nottingham in the English midlands on 13 April was halted before it could begin; in the early hours of the morning, 114 alleged activists were arrested, held at police stations overnight and then granted bail subject to stringent conditions. Moreover, many had their houses raided by police while in custody, and their computers, mobile-phones and other equipment impounded. This operation must have involved intensive intelligence-gathering by and coordination of police forces across the country; it was followed by reports of police having worked closely with power-companies, even providing them with intelligence from police sources.

What is striking here is that the authorities are responding with repeated tough action against climate groups that (unlike some other protestors) have a consistent record of peaceful protest - and indeed have in almost all cases an ethic of non-violence, even as they remain determined to raise what they believe is the world's most vital single issue. There appears to be a determined campaign, sanctioned from on high, to deter all but the most committed activists from having anything to do with climate protests.

A political challenge

Why is this? It may on the surface look like just one part of a policing attitude that increasingly regards public protests as a whole as not just troublesome but almost illegitimate. Much of the controversy over the policing of the G20 protests in London might support this view.  But this would create a puzzle in that the government's climate-change minister Ed Miliband has argued the need for a vigorous civil-society response to climate change to galvanise officialdom into action.

But it seems more than likely that there is a very different political motive behind what is happening: that the British government led (since June 2007) by Gordon Brown has belatedly woken to the potential of non-violent direct action on the climate issue to damage its reputation and even its prospects for re-election in a contest that must take place by May 2010.  In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here

Paul Rogers's books include Why We're Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007) - an analysis of the strategic misjudgments of the post-9/11 era and why a new security paradigm is needed. A third edition of his Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 2009) is forthcoming

The political challenge posed by non-violent direct action on climate change has three aspects. The first is that the long tradition of peaceful protest in Britain - preceding even the landmark anti-nuclear mobilisations of the Committee of 100 in the 1960s - has focused mostly on opposition to military policy, but has the potential to influence wider public attitudes. The campaigns directed at military bases - such as the Faslane 365 campaign at Britain's main nuclear-missile base in western Scotland - have had an impact, in Scotland especially, but the authorities can still protect such military facilities from non-violent demonstrators with relatively little difficulty. It is harder, however, to contain the exemplary and symbolic impact of campaigns of this kind.

The second aspect is that this form of protest does have a potential to cause real disruption. The interruption of coal deliveries to Britain's largest power-station at Drax in north Yorkshire in June 2008 and the enforced closure of Stansted airport in December 2008 are involved climate-change activists targeting sites of excessive carbon-emissions. Such actions are significant in that airports, power-stations, the road network and other potential targets are dispersed across the country. Even a few hundred protestors can have a major impact, and greater numbers with the knowledge and analytical skills to identify the key weak points in Britain's economy (especially its energy-distribution systems) could create chaos through a programme of coordinated actions. 

The third aspect is the experience of September 2000, when a dispute involving fuel-tanker drivers nearly brought the country to an effective standstill in a matter of days. This was a traumatic episode for the otherwise still relatively popular government of Tony Blair; it understood then that any modern industrial economy is subject to much greater vulnerabilities than had been appreciated.

A river of protest

These factors help explain the government's and the police's strong reaction to the eruption of climate-change protest. It is unlikely to be enough to curb the movement. For it is worth emphasising that non-violent direct action has in the post-1945 era acquired an extraordinary pedigree arising from numerous campaigns in much of the world (see "There are alternatives", 30 March 2006). 

From the civil-rights movement in the United States through to "people power" in the Philippines and numerous civil-society initiatives across east-central Europe during the later decades of the cold war, civilian resistance has had the potential to unsettle governments (see April Carter, Howard Clark & Michael Randle, People Power and Protest Since 1945: a Bibliography of Nonviolent Action [Housmans, 2006 http://www.housmans.com/; Michael Randle, Civil Resistance [Fontana, 1991]; April Carter, Direct Action and Democracy Today [Polity, 2004]).

But if the increasing activism of climate-change protestors can be seen in this historical perspective, it must also cope with the well-resourced and nationally coordinated operation that has evolved to combat it - extending even to violent intimidation to ensure that many potential activists will be persuaded that the personal costs of involvement are just too great.

A generation's task

Will the counter-strategy work? A unique combination of timescales and generational difference suggest an answer: almost certainly not. The impact of climate change is likely to accelerate alarmingly within two decades, yet it requires transformational action within - at most - five years. 

Before the economic recession the British government appeared at last to be recognising the scale of the problem. It was, for example, talking of cutting carbon-emissions by 2050 by as much as 80%. This was a clear improvement on previous targets, though still at least three decades too late. In any event, the recession has shifted investment away from low-carbon projects and renewables, just when the opportunity to have an immediate impact is there.

The core reality is that government action is proving to be inadequate to the scale of the problem to the point of wilful neglect. This is becoming steadily more apparent to a new generation of younger activists, many in their early 20s. They perceive that it is their future world that is going to be wrecked by the failure of governments and older generations to act; and they are becoming increasingly angry, frustrated and determined. 

The nature of the movement that is evolving is not easy to define. There are various umbrella groups, but in terms of dedicated activists it may so far be numbered in the hundreds or the low thousands at most. A movement that size is, as argued above, sufficient to have an impact - but much more important is that it is certain to grow. 

Each month, more evidence points to the accelerating nature of climate change and its potential for global trauma. The emerging evidence that some of the world's major river-systems are starting to dry up is but one example (see Suzanne Goldberg, "Climate change threatens Ganges, Niger, and other mighty rivers", "Threat to food and water as mighty rivers dry up", Guardian, 22 April 2009). In parallel with such evidence, the number of activists grows. In these circumstances, police violence may actually turn out to be counterproductive: it may deter some people but will make others much more unyielding and willing to act in the belief that their cause is right, whatever the personal cost.

The real worry for the British (and other) governments in these circumstances is how soon the protesters will realise just how vulnerable an advanced, integrated and highly organised state really is to intelligent non-violent disruption. The blunt truth is that it probably could not maintain control. Even aside from all the arguments that governments in countries such as Britain should be far more radical in their response to climate change, a political reality may be emerging here that civil action could well force the government to act. This might even be one of those rare occasions where everyday but resolute citizens have a lasting impact on the great issue of our time.


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