New Internationalist

System change, not climate change

Issue 434

Jess Worth looks at how activists in Britain are broadening the climate change debate.

In August 2009, several thousand climate change activists set up camp in central London. Under the banner ‘capitalism is crisis’, they pitched their tents on Blackheath overlooking the city’s financial district.

The event was organized by the Camp for Climate Action (CCA): a rapidly growing grassroots movement taking direct action to prevent climate change. Previous camps had hit the national and international headlines by targeting Heathrow Airport and Kingsnorth coal-fired power station. But this year the ambitious target was the economic system itself – specifically, economic growth.

Environmental researcher Nick Thorpe was part of the discussions that led to that decision: ‘Climate camp was never meant to be a single-issue campaign. The analysis inside the camp was much more sophisticated. It’s good to have big iconic winnable targets, but we didn’t want to be just another anti-pollution lobby group. We wanted to challenge the root causes, not the symptoms.’

Jody Boehnert, a young graphic artist and PhD student, was also involved in the decision: ‘In the last few years a critique of economic growth has become central to our strategy. We recognize that the causes of climate change are systemic – none of our activities against individual carbon emitters will be effective unless we tackle the root of the problem.’

Toby Melville / Reuters
Climate camp activists at Blackheath: ‘We recognize that the causes of climate change are systemic.’ Toby Melville / Reuters

Once the decision was taken, it threw up lots of challenges. Over the week of the camp there were a number of actions against banks and major corporations, in an attempt to join the dots between finance, the economy and big polluting companies.

Nick had the job of trying to get the camp’s message to the media amidst the frenzy that always surrounds the camp’s activities.

‘It’s not a simple message. It’s difficult enough explaining why a coal power station shouldn’t be built. As soon as you start trying to explain how these things are linked to an economic system based on endless growth and consumption, it gets more difficult. Journalists generally didn’t want to hear it – it didn’t fit the simple narratives they wanted to tell about ‘protesters versus energy companies or the government’. So they’d keep in the bits that matched the story they wanted to tell and chop out the rest.’

Most significantly, what the climate camp was saying about climate change was a long way from most of the mainstream debate. According to Nick, it meant that ‘in an interview, you have to reframe the discussion and take it somewhere else. It reminded me of something Noam Chomsky once said about why he doesn’t do live debates. You have to spend so long explaining why everyone else’s assumptions are wrong that you rarely get time to put forward your own position and arguments.’

So was the effort worth it? ‘I think it was,’ says Nick. ‘We did succeed, at least in live interviews, in bringing the link between economic growth and climate change into the mainstream, if only briefly.’

Jody agrees: ‘We managed to shift the conversation – to push the climate debate into a more radical space than otherwise might have happened and I’m proud of that.’

So what next for the CCA?

‘One way forward might be to approach the issue from another direction,’ says Nick. ‘Rather than starting with economics then linking it to climate change, maybe we should do the opposite. For example, mining tar sands in Alberta is one of the most suicidal projects on the planet. It makes no sense but it’s driven by our ludicrous economic system and the quest for growth.’

No doubt that is part of the thinking behind the camp’s recent decision to pick the Royal Bank of Scotland as its August 2010 target. The bailed-out, 83 per cent taxpayer-owned bank is a major financial backer of the tar sands and a potent symbol of the way our financial and economic system prioritizes growth over human rights and humanity’s survival.

For more information see www.climatecamp.org.uk

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