Let the puritans protest

A ban on the Climate Camp at Heathrow would be a disgrace: even no-fun, anti-flying eco-miserabilists should have the right to assemble.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

As far as public protest goes, the Camp for Climate Action that will take place at Heathrow from 14 to 21 August looks set to be the most killjoy, conservative and curmudgeonly demonstration that has taken place in years.

At the height of the holiday season – as families jet abroad for a hard-earned two-week break in some sunny destination, or lovers fly to Paris or Venice or Prague for some alone time – a group of deeply serious deep-greens plans to set up a protest-and-information camp inside Heathrow (sort of Glastonbury without music or drugs) to inform holidaymakers that their actions are ‘immoral’ and that anyone who enjoys a ‘stag night in Prague’ is putting ‘our ability to live on Earth’ at risk (1).

The camp is opposed to the planned construction of a third runway at Heathrow, and to flying in general: one of its messages to the people is ‘stop flying to Spain for the weekend’ (2). Like latter-day puritans, the campers’ blot on the Heathrow landscape will leave everyone who flies abroad in mid-August in no doubt that they are committing a mortal sin against the planet, which apparently will contribute to the violent deaths through floods and hurricanes of up to 180million people (3). Happy holidays!

Yet just because the camp will be made up of painful miserabilists, who wouldn’t know what fun was if it stamped its eco-footprint on their faces, that is no justification for shutting it down or threatening to arrest its participants. The British Airports Authority, owner of Heathrow, is seeking a legal injunction this Wednesday against the camp. In the name of ‘protecting the operation of the airport and the safety of passengers’, BAA is requesting an injunction that will give police the right to arrest anyone suspected of travelling to Heathrow in order to protest and who has not given 24 hours’ advance notice of their intention to protest.

Whatever you think of the party-pooping, holiday-ruining protesters and their childish, fear-packed end-of-the-world politics, there are many good reasons to hope that this injunction falls flat on its face in the High Court this week.

The camp – whose participants include Green Party members, the Woodland Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and various anti-flying groups such as Plane Stupid – should be ridiculed rather than restricted. It will be an unwitting showcase of environmentalist groups’ penchant for panicmongering and their hostility to the masses.

The camp is likely to show up how greens use ‘The Science’ (their capitals) in a deeply cynical way to back up their actually political demands for austerity and conformism. For instance, the Climate Camp website declares: ‘The science is clear: we have 10 years to save the world.’ What?! This scary-sounding slogan has its origins in the IPCC’s speculative claim that if global temperatures rise by more than 2C above pre-industrial levels, then there may be agricultural losses, adverse health effects in poorer parts of the world and a greatly increased risk of water shortages – and the IPCC thinks that, ‘Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels that would trigger this rise could possibly be reached in about 10 years or so’ (4). If, possibly, perhaps, risk… all of these caveats are expunged by the protesters who declare simplistically: ‘We have 10 years to SAVE THE WORLD!’ As if the IPCC’s output wasn’t already plenty politicised and overly shrill, green protesters manage to make it even more so. The demands of the Climate Camp show that, for many environmentalists, ‘The Science’ is only a tool for emotional and political blackmail, where ‘facts’ are used to force a change in behaviour.

Indeed, the very focus on flying as the biggest problem facing the world exposes the moralistic underpinnings of these supposedly scientific warriors. The Climate Camp organisers claim that opposing further construction at Heathrow and demanding the grounding of unnecessary flights is ‘one of the most important environmental battles in Western Europe’; one protester says he is going to Heathrow ‘armed with peer-reviewed science’ (5). (Remember the days when protesters tended to be armed with political convictions, or even sticks and stones, rather than turgid scientific documents?) Yet flying is not, as the protesters would have us believe, the greatest emitter of CO2; it doesn’t even come near to winning that title.

A fairly exhaustive study by The Economist last year found that aviation’s contribution ‘to total man-made emissions worldwide is around three per cent’. In its study of greenhouse gas emissions in America, The Economist found that all forms of transportation contributed 27.4 per cent of emissions; flying on its own causes 3.2 per cent. So even within the world of transportation, flight is overshadowed by cars, ships and trains when it comes to coughing up the bad stuff, not to mention being overshadowed by electricity generation (which causes 33.9 per cent of America’s CO2), industry (18.8 per cent), agriculture (7.6 per cent) and residential properties (7.6 per cent) (6).

So why the myopic focus on flying? Because it allows environmentalists to berate allegedly greedy consumers for doing something that is apparently unnecessarily indulgent: going abroad for a holiday!? Behind the political-scientific façade, the Climate Camp comes across as a very old-fashioned, one might say almost Catholic attack on the sinning public and its dirty habits. A spokeswoman for the camp told the BBC that protesters ‘causing problems for ordinary holidaymakers was justified’. She said: ‘150,000 people die each year around the world because of climate change. Those people have a right to life more than people here have a right to fly.’ (7) It is a tactic of the hectoring moralist to blame people’s everyday behaviour for causing the suffering of others. Just as the priests and nuns at my school used to tell us it was a sin to have too much stuff – ‘think of the little black babies who have nothing!’ – so the greens tell us that having too many holidays will make other people die horrible watery or fiery deaths.

Also, something about the Climate Campers’ complaints about having their liberty curtailed by BAA rings hollow. Environmentalists are hardly the most libertarian souls in the world. Some of those involved in the Climate Camp have put forward green arguments against ‘rising levels of immigration’: in short, they want to restrict freedom of movement in the name of ‘saving the planet’ (8). (And these are people who believe that parts of the Third World from which immigrants tend to come will shortly be made uninhabitable by floods or fire. Wow – talk about inhumane.) Others involved in the camp have been at the forefront of calling for the censorship of those who question the climate change orthodoxy (9). Moreover, the anti-flying movement – with its demands for stiffer taxes on cheap flights and its ad campaigns designed to guilt-trip people who use planes – is driven by a desire to restrict people’s movement around the world, one of the great advancements and horizon-widening freedoms of the past hundred years.

Yet just because environmentalists seek to curtail our freedoms, that does not mean we should support the curtailment of theirs. BAA’s injunction, if successful, would deliver another body blow against the right to free assembly at a time when Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have already beaten it up quite enough.

The anti-camp injunction would be far-reaching indeed: it would cover not just Heathrow airport, but also rail and road routes into Heathrow, including sections of the M4 and M25 motorways (including service stations); parts of the Piccadilly Line on the London Underground; and platforms six and seven at Paddington Station from which the Heathrow Express train operates. Anyone in these areas suspected of travelling to Heathrow in order to take part in the camp could be detained. The injunction would effectively place large parts of London under the watchful eye of suspicious cops, whose job would be to prevent members of the public from exercising their right to protest.

Under the cover of clamping down on the camp, BAA is hoping to set a precedent that will restrict protests in Heathrow in general. As the Financial Times points out, Heathrow has ‘suffered severe disruption in the peak weeks of the summer travel season in each of the past four years, [sometimes] as a result of unofficial strikes’ (10). Heathrow is an important part of the UK, and as such it should be as open to protest as every other part of the UK ought to be. The airport employs thousands of people, many of whom have demonstrated to demand better wages and working conditions; and the airport is often the first port of call for political figures visiting Britain whom certain activists may wish to protest against.

The Climate Camp may be a childish gathering, but if BAA manages to push through the idea that it should have the right to stop protests that might potentially harm ‘the operation of the airport’, then it could also limit protests for real things that actually matter: such as the unofficial strikes in 2005 carried out by 1,000 baggage handlers and other Heathrow staff in solidarity with the mainly Asian workers who were sacked en masse by Gate Gourmet, a catering firm based in Heathrow (11). It would be a crying shame if a legal challenge against a group of self-regarding eco-worriers led to future attacks against people fighting to protect and improve their own and others’ livelihoods.

The attempt to shut down the camp is an attack on the right to protest. It also allows the Climate Campers to pose as heroic defenders of liberty against the powers-that-be (some of the protesters are even describing themselves as modern-day Suffragettes). It would be far better to allow the camp to go ahead. Tens of thousands of people will pass through Heathrow between 14 and 21 August – in order to meet loved ones, visit friends, attend weddings or funerals or graduations, sign contracts with business acquaintances, and do various other everyday human things – while a few hundred greens will be shouting in the distance about how we’re all killing the planet. There could be no clearer illustration of the profoundly elitist bent to the politics of environmentalism, and how it clashes with the wishes and desires of the mass of the population.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill asked Who’s afraid of Ryanair? and described the Climate Change Chaos demo as A march of middle-class miserablists. Peter Smith argued that when it comes to the sky is the limit. James Woudhuysen discussed the folly of carbon swipe cards. Or read more at spiked issue Environment.

(1) See, for example, the press output of Plane Stupid, one of the participants in the Camp for Climate Action

(2) See the Camp for Climate Action website

(3) See Plane Speaking, Comment Is Free, 11 January 2007

(4) Climate crisis ‘in 10 years’, BBC News, 24 January 2007

(5) See the Camp for Climate Action website

(6) The sky’s the limit, The Economist, 8 June 2006

(7) Demo plan divides airport campaigners, BBC News, 27 July 2007

(8) See, for example, We’re not facing up to the real housing crisis, by Mark Lynas

(9) See, for example, Beyond all reasonable doubt, by Tony Juniper

(10) BAA attacked for Heathrow injunction bid, Financial Times, 28 July 2007

(11) Workers vent their fury at Gate Gourmet, BBC News, 12 September 2005

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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