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Stories of Climate Action: What do they tell us about the UK's Climate Politics?

Updated: Feb 10, 2023

As an anti-vaxxer continued to blast his views on a speaker not far from the entrance of Westminster Hall, a pair of climate action activists simply sat on the opposite side of the street. These climate activists braced the sun with quiet resolve. All they had was a massive poster placed on the ground stating: ‘EARTH FAST. INDEFINITE FAST FOR A CITIZEN’S ASSEMBLY’; well that and the strength to bear hunger. At the time, they were on Day 15. But as I write this, the movement has come to an end (at least for now), having run for over a month.

That afternoon was not the first time I had seen the Earth Fast movement. I initially chanced upon them two days earlier as I walked around Westminster, driven by journalistic curiosity. As a newcomer in the city wanting to make it in the ‘news business’, I was walking around the prime political location in search of news. And well, news is always in abundance in Westminster. I was not sure what I was looking for but dissent is usually good news. In a world obsessed with attending to (rather ineffective) political elites, I find solace in stories of ordinary people as ‘acting’ citizens.

To me, dissent tells the story of a public with a mind and conscience. So when I came across two individuals undertaking an Earth Fast, I was curious. That day, I just sat and spoke to Jo, one of the protesters. We spoke softly and slowly; of our desperation and anxieties related to the climate crisis. Two days later though, I felt compelled to go back and do a proper interview. And Jo happily agreed to speak to me again.

The Earth Fast, I learnt, was a global movement involving around 25 countries and 120 people engaging in direct nonviolent action. Under this movement, activists fasted - demanding greater attention and action from governments towards the climate crisis. While that was the larger aim, protestors in each of these countries had their own specific agenda behind undertaking the fast. In the UK, the protestors were demanding a climate assembly.

As I spoke to Jo, I learnt they didn’t want the “phony version” of the climate assembly the government had set up earlier. They wished for one “with teeth”. In the lead up to the COP26 UN Climate Conference in Glasgow (starting October-end this year), they wanted to highlight how the present Conservative government was not exercising any real change to manage the climate crisis.

As they sat outside the Parliament for days on a stretch, hardly any ministers approached them. Extinction Rebellion, the climate action organisation that had been aiding this group and managing communications, said that the office of Green Party MP Carolyn Lucas and a Labour MP had reached out with support messages. That was the extent of ministerial involvement. A wing of the Earth Fast movement in Spain in fact went on for more than a month. Two of the activists there, Karen and Grian, fasted for 33 days. After much rallying, they managed to get a 15-minute meeting with the Spanish Minister for Ecology and Transition - which eventually led to nothing. Spain is going ahead with a Climate Assembly that has no real power to exercise changes. The recommendation of these protestors to make changes to the design of the Climate Assembly for better outcomes fell on deaf ears. In the light of this, Karen tells me she is just angry and upset. She is asking the question many of us are, what is to be really done now given politicians are still not listening?

As the Earth Fast movement was happening, another climate movement was also in full swing: Insulate Britain. These activists took to the highways in the country, continuing to block several crucial roads in and around London for about five weeks. [Currently, they are on a break from protests for 11 days]. The group is demanding the government to insulate heating systems in all households around the country by 2030; in an attempt to save energy and meet the carbon emissions target.

The Insulate Britain demonstrations have come under a vast amount of scrutiny over the weeks. Blocking crucial roadways and disrupting the daily commute of people has led them to gain a lot of negative press in addition to condemnations from ministers. But the protestors claim their disruption, while causing inconvenience to many, is necessary to force action and prevent climate catastrophe.

It is also worth noting that at this time, in the UK itself, another set of climate activists are on the move. The ‘Camino to COP’ are taking a pilgrimage walk to Glasgow (starting from London and Bristol), raising awareness and speaking to several communities in various towns on their way. Both Camino to COP and the Earth Fast activists chose to act in a non-disruptive manner and both of them have largely escaped the attention of the news and politicians. While there is something to be said about the size of movements and other factors, overlooking their actions also speaks to the apathy of political elites towards the issues of concern.

As the days go by, I just grow more convinced of the importance of highlighting these stories. All of these climate action movements have been taking place in the UK in the same time frame. Yet, the media environment is saturated only with stories about the Insulate Britain demonstrations (often portrayed in a negative light). Therefore I felt it crucial to highlight that climate action has varying shades. In a time when the government has been conveniently using disruptive climate protests as reasons for crackdown and inaction. I feel compelled to highlight how other not-so-disruptive ones are ignored and go unacknowledged - possibly why then disruption seems necessary to those protesting. It shows how the conservative government in the UK is making use of certain narratives to divert attention away from their own apathy towards the climate crisis, and in some cases, even misaction and destruction of the climate through their policies (despite what the Prime Minister Boris Johnson might have said at the United Nations).

While one might disagree with the tactics of the Insulate Britain protests, directing all our criticism towards the protestors takes away from the real problem here: governmental inaction. That is what the politicians want - to distract us from the real issues - and that is what we give them when we gang up against the Insulate Britain protestors. The message we should take from these events is not of the crazy people blocking streets, but of the crazy people in Parliament who are failing to act. These protests would be rendered useless if the government itself were to set up better forums of public engagement and used that to take some real action. Let us think about that too.

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