Climate activism in the UK: Broadening, deepening, radicalising

As we prepare for an important conference on climate jobs and an international wave of climate demonstrations this weekend, Tabitha Spence takes a look at developments in the climate movement here in the UK.

The year 2014 is proving to be significant for radical climate activism in the UK.  The number of people getting involved with climate activism has mushroomed. Activists are making connections with each another. The present movement is ushering in a qualitatively different type of struggle from the environmental activism of the past.

We are seeing a broadening of the movement. There is a shift from the perception of environmentalism as a primarily white, middle class concern. New groups are bridging the movement across ethnicity, faith, and class. This can be seen in the range of groups that have come together to organise this Sunday’s People’s Climate March, which will coincide with mass demonstrations across the world, from New York to Islamabad.

It can also be seen in the way the movement is building towards the international COP21 climate talks in Paris in December 2015. For instance, Our Voices, an organisation “bringing faith to the climate talks”, is calling on people of different faiths and ethical standpoints to join in solidarity as a human community and call on world leaders to come to a meaningful agreement where previous talks have failed. There will be a major demonstration in London on 7th March next year, and there are plans for a wave of student occupations across universities to coincide with the talks in December.

There is a growing awareness in the labour movement of the need for climate jobs. The Trade Union Group of the Campaign Against Climate Change is releasing its third edition of the One Million Climate Jobs booklet at an international conference this weekend. Mitigating climate change will require people to be employed across different sectors to do the work on the ground to enable the transition to a low-carbon economy. The report proposes they should be employed as part of a National Climate Service. The group’s primary concern is ensuring working people do not lose out during the energy transition. They lay out their proposal very clearly, complete with detailed calculations showing how each sector can be transformed to cut its greenhouse gas emissions, generate clean energy, and provide climate jobs with fair pay and stability.

Other elements of the movement also recognise the deeply interconnected nature of climate crises and other struggles. Groups are working in defence of those in fuel poverty because the for-profit energy system keeps over 2 million English households in fuel poverty and allowed over 31,000 excess winter deaths to occur in England and Wales in 2012/2014.

People power is something this crisis demands, and we are witnessing the number of groups engaging in the climate struggle springing up all over the map. Over 160 anti-fracking campaigns have started in recent years across in the UK.

Map of anti-fracking groups across the UK. Source:

There are countless active divestment campaigns across the UK demanding their universities, local councils, faith institutions and NGOs take their money out of investing in fossil fuels.

Nearly one thousand people attended the second Reclaim the Power climate action camp in Blackpool in August for a series of workshops and to plan climate and anti-fracking actions.

There are also growing numbers of parents and grandparents concerned for intergenerational justice who are mobilising action groups in their local areas.

Grandparents Climate Action. Photo: John Walker.

It is not just the numbers that matter, but also the understanding within the movement of the roots of the climate crisis and approaches to tackling it. Many climate activists recognise that we are using the planet’s resources to such an extent that drastically changing the climatic system is part and parcel of the existing global economic model. They see the impossibility of infinite growth on a planet of finite resources and the deeply unjust nature of a system that ‘grows’ and ‘develops’ on the backs of the have-nots. They are finding creative ways to confront the institutions that enable ever increasing amounts of greenhouse gases to be pumped into the atmosphere by working to interrupt the fossil fuel economy.

Between 60 and 80 percent of the reserves of oil, gas, and coal currently on the books of fossil fuel companies need to stay in the ground if we are to have any hope of mitigating climate change. To ensure this happens, people are engaging in divestment campaigns all over the country (and world) to push their institutions withdraw their money from the fossil fuel industry. In the last year Oxford City Council, the British Medical Association, the Quakers in Britain, and the World Council of Churches have all committed to divest from fossil fuels. While no universities in the UK have yet committed to divest their endowments, the Universities of Edinburgh, Oxford, and Glasgow are being forced by the campaigns to consider proposals to divest, making their investments public, or consulting with stakeholders. They are set to take further steps in October or November. As student unions in 15 universities in the UK have passed motions in support of divesting from fossil fuels, it is likely that we will see more universities starting to seriously consider divestment.

Demonstration for divestment from fossil fuels in Oxford. Photo: John Walker]

The Reclaim the Power action camp last month attracted people from all over the country who wanted to learn about employing direct action tactics to the struggles raging in their own communities. Many people who live in areas marked to be fracked have found little to no legal recourse to prevent the gas companies from doing hydraulic fracturing to get the shale gas underneath their communities. They are concerned about this practice because of the links between fracking and earthquakes, air and water pollution and health concerns, as well as the methane and carbon dioxide emissions from fracking that will contribute to climate change.

Direct action groups around the country are placing their bodies in the way of the industries attempting to extract gas and oil or mine coal. Others are staging demonstrations and sit-ins at company offices and government institutions to show that much of the public does not support short term gains for private interests at the expense of communities and the future.

Other groups are shedding light on the collusion of the arts and theatre with the fossil fuel industry by emphasising their financial links with polluting energy giants. Donating this money, they argue, allows these companies to clean their images by posing themselves as generous supporters of the arts. It also sends the message that fossil fuel companies’ continued existence is unacceptable, at a time when we need to be transitioning away from fossil fuel use. Some of the direct action groups employ theatre to draw attention to their concerns, and to get the public involved. BP or Not BP, for instance, is known for its entertaining actions such as the Viking invasion on the British Museum, where flash theatre was utilised to shed light on the problematic implications of the British Museum accepting funding from the fossil fuel industry for its Viking exhibition. Joining in the fight against fossil fuel sponsorship have been a series of direct actions by the Sustainable Quakers and the Dharma Action Network for Climate Engagement.

The struggles all across the country, and indeed, across the world are being waged because things have to change. It is clear that the same system that got us into this conundrum isn’t going to get us out of it. Climate activist are arguing that we must leave behind the so-called ‘market solution’ ideology and be open to changing the world, both from the ground up and through large scale national initiatives without the involvement of money-hungry for-profit institutions.

This weekend, people will be demonstrating in different cities around the globe to participate in the biggest climate action in history. The People’s Climate March is meant to send a loud and clear message to world leaders at the UN Climate Summit called by Ban Ki-moon in New York: No more fossil fuels. It’s time to create the jobs to put people to work now to take the world off its reliance on the energy sources of the past and embrace the renewable energy of the future. And it’s time to break the stranglehold of the fossil fuel industry on our societies and our planet.



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