Rax Interview with Tamsin Omond (Climate Activist)
26 November 2010
In July, New Internationalist published The Rax Active Citizenship Toolkit. It is aimed primarily at teachers and students of Citizenship Studies in UK schools but in fact it can be used by anyone seeking to engage more actively in the world around them. The Toolkit is a landmark in textbook innovation, graphic style, approach to content and attitudes to learning. It also contains exclusive interviews with a range of voices, from popstars and politicians to young active citizens. Over the coming weeks we will be posting the full text of the Rax interviews.
Tamsin Omond is a young environmental activist who has appeared in the mainstream media many times as an advocate for taking action on climate change. In 2008, she founded the campaigning organization Climate Rush, which led a rush of 1,000 people on the Houses of Parliament to mark the centenary of the suffragettes doing the same thing. The Rax team interviewed Tamsin in January 2010.
Why did you choose to hold a climate rush on the houses of parliament on october 13th 2008?
It was simple. I read about the original Suffragette Rush on October 13, 1908 about six weeks before it's centenary. I was inspired by their model of non-violent direct action. Everyone was invited and they surprised the authorities with how far they would go to have their voice heard. I was feeling dejected about the lack of access points into environmental activism and decided that by celebrating this Suffragette anniversary we might talk to and involve a different audience in the environmental movement. We hoped to inspire the radical Suffragette spirit and give it a new focus: sustainability. We also invited pariticpants to dress Edwardian so that they might feel inspired by the historical campaign that we were imitating, a campaign that really did change the world.
What is your view about the different types of direct action used by the women's suffrage movement?
I think that direct action is a response to frustration. Decades were spent campaigning within the system and very little ground was won. Direct action can do many things - it attracts publicity and gives a focus to debate. It challenges the legitimacy of the laws it breaks. And it offers a solution - a different vision of how society could be structured. As a woman, whose present day rights are impossible to untangle from the radical history that pushed the debate so far, I cannot criticise the various forms of direct action that were taken. I'm incredibly proud of the new model they presented. The Suffragettes lived an alternative vision of what women could do, say and be in a patriarchal society. They not only challenged what men thought women could be, they also challenged what women believed they should be. I can only hope that the direct action tactics of the present environmental movement will achieve the same for our society.
What is your campaign, what issues are you addressing and what inspired you to get involved?
My campaign is to raise awareness of the reality of climate change (AGW) and to let normal people know what they can do to become part of the solution, rather than part of the problem. I am concerned that even if we all made our lifestyles a little greener we would be no closer to mitigating climate change. I hope that the Climate Rush, with its links to the Suffragettes, reminds people that injustices can be recognised and relieved, but that we must do more than change our light-bulbs. My inspiration is this present moment, a context threatened by climate change. And my hope is that others will be inspired by living at this historic time and that together we will take action in our own lives, within our communities, on our high street and at the most public and political levels, always to cut the carbon.
What kind of work did you do to inform yourself of the key issues in your campaign, what tips would you give young campaigners in this stage of 'critical thinking and enquiry'?
I always try to remember what has worked and what hasn't worked. The Suffragettes gained huge publicity in a very short time. They forced the issue of female emancipation into the public eye. At present, climate change is still not taken seriously by those who govern our country or run the biggest businesses and industries. The first priority is to get people talking about climate change, the next hurdle is to engage people in doing something about it. Talk to as many and as diverse a group of people as possible. Find out what they think about climate change. What if anything are they doing? Why does it relate to them? The Climate Rush is focused on inspiring women to act radically to stop climate change. Is there a particular group that you're well placed to focus upon? Is there a campaign strategy that would work well to inspire and engage them?
Did you ever use experts to back up your cause or inform your cause? How important do you think this is?
It depends what your cause is. For climate change there are so many 'sceptics' who dismiss the science of climate change so it's important to be able to explain, scientifically, why climate change is happening and why humanity is making it much much worse. I found it useful to gain a qualification so I took an MA in environmental science. However a GCSE in physics and an understanding of the greenhouse effect is all that is needed to explain the science of climate change. I think it's very important to appear to have solutions to the problem. For climate change it's essential to talk to those at the cutting edge of climate science (the problem) and those at the cutting edge of sustainable technology, engineering etc (the solutions).
What tips would you give young people about how to be a good advocate for their campaign?
Remember what you're campaigning for. Keep your cool and always return to your arguments. With every campaign try to crystallise three key messages that you come back to often with your campaign's targets. Respect the people that you are trying to persuade. An articulate and polite manner always helps.
In what ways is 21st Century technology important for campaigning and how does your campaign use it?
The internet is the hub of the Climate Rush campaign. It was launched on Facebook and social networked out from there. Apart from online networking, the internet was invaluable for locating and contacting a variety of interest groups who might want to be involved in our campaign.
When organising events we can keep everyone up to date and involved with that process through twitter feeds and blogs. It's easy to disseminate information and keep others involved in the day to day running of the campaign.
If we want to organise an event quickly then we use telephone trees to gather large numbers of people quickly. This technique is also invaluable in organsing flash-mobs.
What kind of actions have you created and why did you choose them?
Climate Rush organised a rush on Parliament when over 1,000 women, men and children, dressed in Suffragette costumes to demand 80% cuts in CO2 emissions by 2050. Three days later the government announced they would do just that. This event was to push for climate action, celebrate the radical and inspiring history of the Suffragettes and encourage more 'normal' people to act now for climate change.
On the evening before the government was to announce its decision on whether it would build a third runway at Heathrow Airport, Climate Rush organised an Edwardian picnic / sit-in throughout Terminal One of Heathrow Airport. This action was to show people how fun and inspiring it could be to take radical action on climate change. It was also to warn the government about the level of activism they could expect if they were to expand Heathrow Airport. Over 600 people forced the closure of Terminal One by holding an Edwardian picnic plus dance in the terminal building.
What are your main tips to getting press coverage?
1. Think of the photo. Make sure that you are creating a photo opportunity from your event / campaign.
2. Have three key messages (what you would like to see happen) for your campaign and repeat them time and time again in press releases and to journalists.
3. Send out a press release ahead of the event and call newsdesks on the day (twice) to impress them with your event and ask that they send a journalist down.
What are the main obstacles you have come up against and how did you overcome them?
The only thing to fear is fear itself. I know it sounds cheesy but it really works that way. The difficulties I've encountered are all to do with people (or myself) feeling unappreciated or burnt out. The way of countering that is to be clear of what your target is. The individual is always a means to a campaign's end - he or she is not the end of the campaign itself. Stay positive, believe that one day, by working with others, the end of your campaign will be achieved and don't be scared of taking some time off when you're feeling exhausted or unsure that your campaign will be successful. But also, always remember to get back in touch with the people who share your passion and get reinspired to join the campaign.
What issues do you think most concern young people today?
Climate change. It's the problem that all of our futures will be spent mitigating and adapting to.
What key advice would you give young people who want to set up their own campaigns?
Get a good network - talk to people and find out how they could be of help / what resources they might have.
Think in terms of events - engaging and fun events that draw attention to your campaign.
Be in touch with local news and radio.
Use the internet for gathering information and putting your campaign out to people who will be interested in it.