Direct action can challenge political inaction over climate change

8 June 2009

Natalie Szarek – Newnham College

What do you get when you combine a shorthaul flight airport, fiftyseven young people concerned about climate chaos, and bolt cutters?
One thing you get (if you’re me) is fifty hours of community service, a £120 fine and a criminal record. You also get an entire country waking up to sensationalist headlines such as ‘Siege of Stansted: Flights Halted’ – and hopefully also waking up to the realities of climate change.

Well before dawn one subzero December morning, I took a deep breath and stepped onto the runway of Stansted Airport, helped set up fencing, and firmly attached myself to the enclosure by a bicycle lock around my neck.

This was several hours before thousands of people around the country would direct rage, scorn and ridicule (as well as vocal approval and admiration) at me as a participant in the climate change protest at Stansted Airport which resulted in fifty-six flights being cancelled, preventing the emission of thousands of tonnes of carbon.

All of the protesters felt the burden of the knowledge that we were inconveniencing people, many of whom did not even know that aviation is the fastest growing source of carbon emissions in Britain. Yet we also felt the weight of responsibility: the little that is within our power to do, we cannot ignore. Civil disobedience has been a crucial element of the most inspirational struggles of humanity, from women’s suffrage, to the civil rights movement in America, to protests against the Vietnam War.

Sections of the contemporary environmental movement have taken on the mantle of this tradition as scientists tell us in increasingly unambiguous terms that our time to prevent climate chaos is running out.

Despite this, non-violent direct action is consistently lambasted by the media and the public. It is often seen as irrational and immature, yet it is neither. Direct action can be the fulfilment of our responsibility to pressure an unresponsive government. It is the refusal to participate in a system which is leading us towards major economic, humanitarian and environmental damage. Activists resort to direct action for diverse reasons. I see it not so much as a way to directly prevent emissions, raise awareness or capture media attention, but ultimately to heighten the sense of urgency that the public and government connect with the issue. The political and economic worlds are saturated with meaningless rhetoric about tackling climate change, and are bereft of any substantial commitment to taking action. It is often the worst offenders (such as energy corporations) who claim ‘green’ credentials while continuing with harmful practices. This leads to an understanding that we are being failed by the leaders of our world, and the task has fallen to us to challenge the inaction accepted by the status quo. The recent attempt by 114 activists to take direct action at a coal fire power station at Nottingham further reminds us of the urgency of our situation, as does the recent “Climate Camp in the City” ( at the G20 summit in London.

Thousands of people camped out on Bishopsgate to demand that climate change be addressed adequately, and not with false solutions such as carbon trading. We cannot ignore the science: if our government does not take bold steps towards sustainability, millions of lives will be tragically and permanently disrupted. We need deeds, not words, from our leaders, and we need a strong social movement to ensure this happens. The next Climate Camp will take place near London from 27th August – 2nd September for a week of education, sustainable living, movement building and direct action, representing the exponential growth of the climate change movement, and the increasing need for direct action.

This need stems from our government’s inaction on and complicity in climate change. But if history has taught us anything, it is that individuals armed with their convictions can and must pick up the responsibility dropped by our leaders, and harness our power as a movement to hold them to account.

Natalie Szarek is CUSU Women’s Officer and is involved in the Camp for Climate Action Campaign.