War at home: The local eco-warriors making a big noise

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Shivering atop a power-station chimney certainly makes a dramatic eco statement. But is direct action the best way to combat global warming? Robin Barton meets the climate-change campaigners who like 'big and bold' and the green communities who prefer 'slow and steady'

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Most of us enjoyed a good night's sleep last night. A warm bed, soft pillow, that sort of thing. But for the past six months, during the harshest winter in decades, protesters against the proposed Mainshill opencast mine in South Lanarkshire have been sleeping in treehouses and tunnels on the site, risking their wellbeing, or at least frostbitten fingers. Last week the eviction process began. Somewhat reassuringly, after the recent cold spell, the activists were given a medical once-over to check they were well enough to be arrested.

From Scotland to the village of Sipson, the site of BAA's planned third runway at Heathrow, environmental activists are fired up. Frustration over December's COP15 cop-out has led many to abandon hope in state-led solutions on climate change and renewable energy. In a poll conducted by treehugger.com, the leading green blog, 48 per cent of respondents, by far the largest group, described the Copenhagen summit as "a big expensive waste of time that failed to deal with an urgent problem". So how best to get that view across?

"Direct action is a form of political engagement that's far more effective than other forms of protest I've tried," argues Ben Stewart. He was one of six Greenpeace protesters arrested after occupying the chimney of Kingsnorth power station in Kent in 2007 (see panel, right). But, heroic though abseiling down a chimney may be, is it the best way forward to a greener, cleaner environment? Or is the greatest progress being achieved in tiny steps that we can all take: cutting down on household waste, using less energy, reducing journeys. These are the seemingly mundane actions being taken by the Transition Town movement.

"The conclusion from Copenhagen is that we can't wait for governments to act," says Rob Hopkins, the Devon-based Transition Towns guru, "so communities need to make these things happen." What Hopkins has in mind are transition towns: communities that have become sustainable not only in energy but in areas including transport, public services, and economics. Some, such as Lewes (see panel, page 20) and the London neighbourhood of Brixton, have their own currencies, which encourage locals to support local enterprises. Since 2005, when the movement germinated in Totnes, it has spread across the world.

"The end of cheap energy is inevitable, and you can choose to look at that as a disastrous crisis, or as an extraordinary opportunity," explains Hopkins. "Transition Towns is a grass-roots movement that goes beyond self-sufficiency. It's a much deeper process than looking at carbon footprints. It's a chance for communities to become their own masters: to be their own banks, their own builders."

Chris Smedley of Transition Town Lewes agrees: "Activism doesn't change the fundamental model of society, whereas what Transition attempts to do is create a new model. Politicans and business leaders live within a set of rules that force a short-term view. Transition Towns can look long-term. The energy crisis won't hit for years. The urgency lies in starting to do something about it now."

Yet that urgency is shared by seasoned activists such as Greenpeace's Stewart (see page 19) and Tim Cowen of ' Conch (see page 21), a group campaigning against a proposed coal-fired powerstation in Ayrshire. "We can debate for years but direct action gets to the end point a lot quicker," says Stewart. "It speeds up the process of change. Direct action provides the crucible in which to have it out." The Kingsnorth protest may have lasted just one night but, after the six activists were charged with criminal damage, it played out in front of a jury in Maidstone Crown Court in 2008. After arguing that by preventing 20,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions they were protecting lives and property (the "lawful excuse"), the Kingsnorth Six were acquitted (the story is told in the Nick Broomfield film A Time Comes).

It wasn't the first time the daring defence had been attempted. "You can go all the way back to the Greenpeace GM crops case in 2000, which sent shockwaves at a political level," says Debbie Tripley, for six years head of legal at Greenpeace and now chief executive of the Environmental Law Foundation (see panel, below right). ELF works at a local level, contesting unglamorous cases involving pesticides, bypasses and waterways; it's a village-green preservation society, staffed by quick-thinking lawyers. "We're not a campaigning organisation; we don't take up causes," says Tripley. "Our aim is simply to improve access to environmental justice." One way ELF is doing that is by offering seminars and workshops in under-represented areas as part of its Sustainable Communities project.

Down in Lewes, "Transition Townies" visit schools and hold energy fairs. Ovesco, an Industrial and Provident Society for community benefit spun out of the town's energy group, has dispensed 200 grants for biomass-fuelled boilers, photo-voltaic panels and insulation. It sounds mundane but in the climate war's battle for hearts and minds, perhaps that's what matters.

It's something that Cowen, a leader of Conch, has considered: "A successful campaign has to be inclusive. Although I come from a campaigning background, most people didn't. They are farmers, beekeepers, businessmen, not stereotypical activists; we hosted free film screenings in Glasgow to engage with people who wouldn't normally be interested."

But all agree that there is a time and place for direct action. "Direct action is a mechanism for people to exercise their freedom of speech on issues that concern them," says Tripley. According to Stewart, peaceful, creative direct action exposes the hypocrisy at the highest level. And Cowen agrees: "The Scottish Government said nice things about their Climate Change Act in Copenhagen, but on the ground, nothing has happened to meet those targets. And they've changed planning rules to make it more difficult for people to object."

Both strands meet in the form of 19-year-old Joe Ryle and his six fellow Plane Stupid activists, who recently launched Transition Heathrow, and are bringing direct-action training to Sipson in preparation for a planning application due to be lodged by BAA later this year. "I have given up on governments taking the action which we need to see. I feel that empowering communities to create their own solutions to tackling climate change, directly controlled by those impacted on the ground, is much more important than trying to lobby the Government."

The protesters: The Kingsnorth Six

For someone without a head for heights, spending more than 24 hours on top of a chimney almost the height of Canary Wharf is an extreme way of making a point. But for Ben Stewart, far left, with three of his six fellow Greenpeace protesters who occupied the chimney of Kingsnorth power station in October 2007, it was worth every minute

"From the top of the chimney – a place you know you're not really allowed to be – we looked over a patchwork of green fields and saw a line of flashing blue lights of police van after police van. There was the sense of having quite an odd day.

"Kingsnorth was to be the first new coal-fired power station, under plans proposed by its owner E-ON. The idea of making Kingsnorth famous was proposed to us in a pub. I'm from the local area so I volunteered as a spokesperson. Our plan was to shut it down for as long as possible.

"It turned out to be much more difficult to get up there than we expected. We thought there'd be a staircase but it was a ladder up the inside of a tower as high as Canary Wharf. We had 50kg kitbags and instead of taking an hour, as I thought it would, it took nine.

"When it was all over, the charges were more serious than we expected: we were charged with causing £30,000 of damage and there was a danger of going to prison. Back in the pub afterwards, I thought something was up when Sarah North, Greenpeace's campaign director, bought me a drink. She broached the subject of pleading not guilty and outlined the idea of running a creative defence and putting the Government's energy policy on trial.

"I thought, why not? We had Keir Starmer QC on our defence team – until he was made director of public prosecutions three weeks before the case and had to pull out. So we were urgently casting around London for a defence lawyer and came up with Michael Wolkind. His previous clients included the nail bomber David Copeland and the Norfolk farmer Tony Martin. They had both lost – but he assured us he had a good feeling about this.

"The Nasa climatologist James Hansen electrified the courtroom with remarkable evidence in our trial; even we learnt a lot. We stopped 20,000 tonnes of emissions during the action and used the "lawful excuse" defence to argue that we were acting to protect property and lives around the world. It was my first time in front of a jury. A court room has a life of its own, there's an atmosphere. I went into court thinking I'd go to jail. But in the process of presenting our evidence, I felt we would get a hung jury and by the end, when the jury had been out for a long time, I thought we'd be acquitted. As Lord Devlin said, every jury is a little Parliament. At times, society has an audit and asks, 'Where are we on this issue?' That little Parliament spoke up.

"I'm 35 and felt that you can sit and wait forever for a government to do the obvious. All of us who take direct action have to face hostile reaction, not only from the police and talk-radio commentators but also friends and relatives. You're always having to answer for what you do. In response, it is gratifying to be able to say 'I haven't broken the law.'"

The community: Transition Town Lewes

The Transition Town movement aims to reduce dependency on fossil fuels and prepare for a low-carbon future. Chris Smedley, Chris Rowland and Oliver Dudok van Heel, speaking below, are three of the people behind the transformation of a whole town. Transition Town Lewes now has its own currency, the Lewes Pound, and about 20 working groups on transport, education, health and food

"We started with a few people who took up the Transition idea six months after Totnes in 2005. We work back from a date when fossil fuels will be unavailable – 2025, 2050 – to develop a community that has been weaned off its dependency. The first year was primarily spent raising awareness and explaining the issues behind fossil fuels.

"The working groups system puts people in touch with others who have a common interest. It's very good on a local, community level and reduces reliance on the local council. There's a can-do attitude about that attracts doers.

"The reason Transition Towns have been successful is that they haven't been militant. They're all-encompassing. Where the environmental movement tends to be 'against' things. Transition Towns are all about being 'for' something. To people of all political backgrounds, that's very appealing."

In Lewes, the Waste Group, led by Julia Waterlow, has, in alliance with the local council, trialled £100 Green Johanna home composters from Sweden. Both parties have subsidised the composters so they're free to local households. An industrial-scale composter, for commercial food waste, is also being trialled at County Hall. Waterlow is also in charge of the Evelyn Eco House on a Lewes estate, which highlights cheap, effective upgrades. The Transport Group, meanwhile, has introduced the car-sharing Silver Bean Car Club, which the district council is looking at introducing town-wide.

The lawyers: Environmental Law Foundation

Deborah Tripley is chief executive of the Environmental Law Foundation, a charity that helps people use the law to protect their local environment. She is a trained barrister and was head of legal at Greenpeace

"When ELF started in 1992, before the UN Convention on Climate Change had been passed, it was a pioneer. Back in those days we had to explain what environmental law was. A unique feature of ELF was establishing a national network of lawyers who pledged to provide a certain amount of time pro bono. Our Sustainable Communities project is a new way of working. We're going to marginalised, under-represented local communities and asking them about their concerns, then bringing in people to provide solutions. We get about 700 enquiries a year – about 80 per cent are planning-related and concerned with things going on in the locality. About 30 per cent become High Court challenges.

"Things haven't changed much over the past 20 years. People are still concerned with the same three issues: noise, habitat destruction and pollution. But more people are aware of their environmental rights then find they can't do anything. According to Lord Justice Jackson's Review of Civil Litigation Costs, litigation costs have increased; that's an issue for us and all environmental organisations.

"Is law the best mechanism for protecting the environment? Sometimes I feel people's expectations are too high. We advised the local community when Donald Trump wanted to build a vast golf course; they felt the development would destroy local coastline. The proposal was refused at a planning inquiry but Alec Salmond overruled them and granted it. Work securing the sand dunes began last October, but is still mired in legal challenges

"Campaigners want to change minds at a government level, but we work in a different context: we represent people on a local level. Sometimes you can get a change at a policy level but find it has no impact at all locally, or is not being enforced. You need ordinary people to protect the environment and environmental laws need to be enforced on the ground. We're just trying to get the best for their area. It's about small wins but important wins."

The campaigners: Conch (Communities Opposed to New Coal at Hunterston)

Formed in July 2009 to fight plans to build a new coal-fired power station at Hunterston, Conch is led by Tim Cowen (below, far right). Hunterston is a small coal terminal on the North Ayrshire coast. The no-new-coal campaign is one of the latest since the Kingsnorth protest

"We started in July, with a mix of people, and have had an awful lot of good news since then. Ayrshire Power's partner, Dong (Danish Oil and Natural Gas), pulled its funding in October, saying it needed to make cutbacks in its international portfolio. Conch would have been a factor in that decision. We have run a very vociferous local campaign and launched a legal challenge in September. There still has not been a planning application lodged.

"One critical lesson has been that campaigns don't usually start before plans are lodged; but as soon as we heard about the Hunterston proposal we got 120 people along to a public meeting on a wet and windy night. Because we succeeded in getting started early, we haven't had to resort to direct action yet. But we were boosted by news of the Kingsnorth acquittal. If the plan goes ahead, we will organise larger public meetings. We've done well to get information out to counter PR from Ayrshire Power. Another thing we've done is highlight what we believe are problems with technological issues surrounding carbon capture [using a filter to hinder emissions], which was part of Ayrshire Power's proposal.

"Networking with other campaign groups is vital. It's really important to build networks and share information. There's quite an active campaign against opencast mining in Scotland and they've shared health studies and fired off Freedom of Information requests. My advice to would-be activists: give it a go. You'll be surprised at the support you get. And have fun, keep people motivated. We had a fundraising gig in a barn."

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