Hear the phrase "green activist" and the image that pops in your head is probably someone like Swampy, or energetic rebels like the members of Plane Stupid, who climbed on to the roof of the House of Commons in February, protesting against a third runway at Heathrow. The last person you'd probably think of was a yummy mummy, living in west London, with a high-powered career.
WeCAN, a group campaigning for action on climate change, is surely the most genteel environmentalist group around. I meet the founding members in the yummy mummy heartland of Notting Hill. Here to tell me about WeCAN are Jennifer Nadel (mother of two), former home affairs editor of ITN; director and novelist Rebecca Frayn (mother of three), who is the daughter of the playwright and novelist Michael Frayn; and the writer, campaigner and former Express and Independent editor Rosie Boycott (mother of one).
You'd expect to see women like this – well-groomed, conscientious – at farmers' markets, or perhaps at the wheel of a snazzy hybrid car. But that is not what WeCAN is about. These women are tired of being made to feel guilty about using plastic bags or owning a car. While these things matter, they argue that the real responsibility for arresting climate change lies with governments, big business and policy makers. Energy-saving light bulbs, an electric car and holidaying in the UK is all very well, but all it seems to add up to is a guilty conscience. What we should be doing is putting pressure on the people who can bring about change.
"Climate change is being treated as if it's just an annoyance," says Rosie Boycott. "And it's being left to people like the Daily Mail to campaign for a ban on plastic bags. That's great, but not using plastic bags isn't going to save the planet. And should these issues really be left to private enterprise to solve? This is not a problem that will be solved by us buying eco-friendly washing powder – it can only be solved with big, serious thinking."
The group also includes a former radio producer, Nadine Grieve, the actress Denise Stephenson, the novelist Kate Morris and the artist and author Nicola Easton.
Their aim, for now, is to lend a voice to the protests against the proposed third runway at Heathrow, but their broader plan is to encourage Parliament to establish a cross-party group to take action against climate change.
"The group was inspired by a film Rebecca made," explains Jennifer Nadel. "It's called When I Grow Up. And last year a group of us mothers were talking about what we would tell our children about what we did about climate change. We all realised that we had to do something. We were lucky enough to inherit this world and if we're not careful we're not going to pass it on as we found it."
InWhen I Grow Up a group of schoolchildren describe their hopes for the future, but their voices are gradually drowned out by the noise of aeroplanes overhead. "I was talking to a friend about Heathrow expansion," says Rebecca Frayn. "Later, she rang me out of the blue to say that she had raised money to make a film and would I do it. It was four days before the Government consultation closed and there was a big rally at Westminster, where they wanted to screen the film, so we scrabbled around to get it done in time."
The proposed third runway at Heathrow is one of the top issues on the green agenda; the Department for Transport first estimated that there had been 18,000 responses to the consultation, but the figure was revealed to be closer to 70,000. The Government is due to announce its decision on the runway in July.
Every environmentalist group is appalled by the proposal. But clambering on to roofs and lying on runways is not everyone's cup of tea. WeCAN offers another protest route.
The bright green website for WeCAN outlines its agenda: individual action is important, but it's not enough. With echoes of Greenham Common in Berkshire, where hundreds of women camped outside the RAF site in the early 1980s to protest at the siting of nuclear weapons there, WeCAN is holding a vigil to protest against airport expansion outside the House of Commons on 20 May, from 6pm to midnight. "Bring a candle, wear a green ribbon," says the flyer. The women will deliver a letter to 10 Downing Street. Already, WeCAN has prompted John McDonnell, Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington, to table a Commons Early Day Motion. It urges MPs to support the vigil and welcomes the WeCAN view "that the dangers of global warming are so great that an all-party coalition should be formed to implement a coherent strategy to protect the environment and to put the UK in the lead on this issue".
"Airport expansion was the catalyst for the group, but it's not the focus," says Nadel. "Our point is that we've been lulled into a false sense of security and have been told that all we need to do is switch to energy-saving light bulbs and stop using plastic bags and everything will be all right. But none of it is going to make a blind bit of difference. The only thing that will change anything is major government action, and the Government isn't doing it."
The women aren't professional environmentalists or politicians, and believe that's where their strength lies. "We hope that we will become a sufficiently big group," says Boycott. "Politicians do listen to big numbers – I've learnt that from campaigns in the past. We're hoping to attract people who wouldn't think otherwise of campaigning, or who aren't members of an environmentalist group. We want to appeal to the good citizens of England, the ones who keep things ticking over and never complain. We're not into direct action – at least, not yet. I'm quite well-known as a troublemaker, but on the 20th there will be no climbing up anything, or rabble-rousing, and I don't think anyone plans to chain themselves to railings."
"Our role is to give government a mandate and say we, the voters, do care about the planet," adds Frayn. "But it's not enough for individuals to decide about how much they fly or whether to leave the television on standby; there needs to be a national, cross-party conference and nothing is going to be achieved without that. We just want the Government to implement its own policies. They want to reduce carbon emissions and they want to expand aviation: the two things are incompatible."
But, they say, no party is willing to stick its neck out far enough on environmental issues because it is "political suicide". But, they add, not doing anything might be even worse for their voter-friendliness.
The first campaign: how to stop airport expansion
* Join the WeCAN vigil outside the House of Commons on 20 May.
* Forward details of the vigil to all your friends.
* Print out the invitation and pin it to school noticeboards and other public places, such as surgeries.
* Buy green ribbon and make it into an environment awareness ribbon for your friends.
* Join the march on 31 May (see www.hacan.org.uk for details).
* Write to Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly at the House of Commons, London SW1 OAA.
* Write to the Transport Select Committee at the House of Commons.
* Write to Tim Yeo MP, chair of the Commons Environment Committee.
* Copy any letters you send to your MP at the Commons.
* Write to your local paper about the issue.
* Vote in the BBC poll on the third runway (on BBC website).Reuse content