If you live outside the UK, chances are that you haven’t noticed the climate “camp” protests at Heathrow. Despite various forecasts of direct action, there seems to have been very little action and a lot of sitting around. I’m left wondering why they bothered.

One obvious answer is the famous “Something must be done! This is something. So we’ll do it”. Another is that its fairly cheap and easy (both for the protesters and the organisers) and (since they wimped out of any kind of confrontation) safe too (I’m being a bit unfair there).

Was it perhaps to persuade people onto their side? Presumably not, since they made no attempt at coherent argument. Indeed, in a clever PR stunt, the airline pilots offered to meet the protesters to put their views that “aircrafts are minor polluters, that air travel is not the fastest-growing source of emissions and that most flights, compared with other transport modes, are green” but the protesters wimped out, on the implausible grounds that they were “too busy”. Arguably they could see it was a set-up, but its hardly the response of someone confident of winning any intellectual argument, is it?

I’m assuming they though that being here and demonstrating would somehow win people to their side. Its only just recently – indeed about this event – that I’ve realised how fatuous this is (yes, call me naive). All the protesters do is call attention to the issue. If they do anything, it is to crystallise unformed opinion one way or another. Why they should expect that to favour flying-is-bad I’m not sure. *I* think excess flying is bad, but without some facts as to why, to balance the obvious advantages, why should anyone be convinced.

You can read their own aims here. I find it unconvincing. And the idea that it was sustainable seems laughable.

However, they are still a lot better than the bozos who write letters to the Torygraph.

[Coming soon: my uninteresting review of HP VII!]

Comments

  1. #1 Alexander Ac
    2007/08/22

    In broader context, this raises the real feasibility and impact of *all* forms of protests or campaigns, e.g. Life Earth concert, AIT, 11th Hour (Di’Caprio)…
    for what imaginary reason, people should not believe to scientist, but should believe to Al Gore, rock stars, or actors?!

    [Indeed. However, AIT does at least attempt to present a reasonable argument. There is a difference between being asked to believe someone when they say “we must do this” and when they say “here is the evidence”. AIT does the latter. The airport people are doing the former -W]

    For what I think, people mostly *do something* when they see immediate or at least fast (months, maybe years) results of their *effort*, but maybe more importantly, when they see an immediate thread.

    Further, do anybody believe, that people will do something in favour of their children?? If somebody thinks so, just read Richard Dawkins “Selfish gene”.

    This is not to say, that people completely ignore the long-term problems, or the (possible or probable) problems of the future.

    This is to say, that people will first solve the actual and today problems, they will first look at their *own* well-being, then they look at the problems of their closest family, than they look at the problems of their friends, then they look at the problems in their own country, then at the problems of other countries. And still, we are far from only *looking* at the distant problems of climate change, not to say we are far from *solving* or *doing sth* about it. This is true for 90% or more of population, the rest are activists and crazy people trying to change the world…

    And even of there are clearly problems accociated with climate change *now*, most people will not make the connection…

    [Very few people are suffering from climate change *now*. To go back to the airports, the strongest protests are from people who don’t like the noise, or the expansion into their back gardens, not the cl ch stuff -W]

  2. #2 Adam
    2007/08/22

    I suppose you could apply the “what does it achieve” question to any form or protest, or register of disagreement. As there are so few ways of getting one’s opinion across, or of making governments (or corporations) even be aware of opinions, let alone take any notice (especially as anti and anti harassment terror laws have pretty much ended most forms of demonstration), then I suppose any form of protest is as good as any other. Whether it’s camps, letters or blogs. I guess that’s another form of “this is something”.

    I keep meaning to buy and read “Why Bother?” by Sam Smith, which apparently covers this sort of thing quite well. I suppose there’s a certain irony to the fact that I haven’t got round to it yet. :|

  3. #3 csrster
    2007/08/22

    Heathrow is also a bit of an easy target since everybody hates the place anyway.

  4. #4 Adam
    2007/08/22

    True, though some of the protesters live near it and were campaigning against the runway on grounds other than just climate change.

  5. #5 crandles
    2007/08/22

    >no attempt at coherent argument

    Isn’t it a coherent argument that they have looked into the issue, think something must be done, and are willing to spend their time sitting around to make this point? Most people do have better things to do.

    [No it isn’t an argument. Its a “believe-me” -W]

    The risk is that if the number of protestors is small then it is easy for the opposition to say it is only small numbers and you will always get a few tree hugging enviros who want to go back to the stone age. So small numbers do more harm than good to the cause while large numbers does make a point.

    The air travel emissions will reach 60% of our emissions sounds to me like a silly extrapolation that should be expected to do more harm than good to the cause.

  6. #6 Eli Rabett
    2007/08/22

    The basic thrust is that the locals don’t want to see a new runway built. The rest is theater.

  7. #7 Munin
    2007/08/22

    Their media management was a bad joke.
    http://blogs.guardian.co.uk/climatechange/2007/08/climate_camps_media_mismanagme.html

    Perhaps as a result, I never saw or read an interview where they didn’t come across as idiots. “We are armed … only with peer-reviewed science”; what’s the use in having a stealth bomber when you don’t know how to fly?
    http://www.indymedia.org.uk/en/2007/08/378986.html

  8. #8 LuboŇ° Motl
    2007/08/22

    I agree both with William and Alexander. Both anti-airport green protesters as well as Al Gore are whackos who repel as many intelligent people as they attract simpletons but the anti-airport protesters have higher potential to repel.

    Is it better for the green movement to make a lot of movies, concerts, and protests, or less? I think that no answer is a magic bullet. What the green movement would really need is an agreement of their proclamations with reality. That’s somewhat harder to achieve than a protest.

    You could find inspiration in State of Fear by Michael Crichton. Pay for some dramatic climate events. That will really convince a lot of people!

    Incidentally, have you already left the Green Party, William? Or do they allow you to write these un-green comments on your blog? Or is it just that your comrades can’t read? ;-)

  9. #9 Douglas Coker
    2007/08/22

    Oh dear. It’s in posts like this that you come across as cynical, rather superior and possibly insouciant. This is a shame. I’m not a modeller and can’t comment in detail on your work but appreciate the insight your site gives me into your world.

    [I think I am cynical. To the extent that the protesters are doing things that I would have done in my youth but don’t any more, I do think I’m superioir. Or perhaps just burnt out -W]

    I do however have a history of involvement in political activity. I get the impression you don’t tangle with any actions that attempt to achieve political change. Your comments on those who do try can come across as dismissive and ill-informed. There are no easy political answers and different people will be convinced by different approaches. If the Climate Camp doesn’t appeal or you don’t get it just shush! SHUSH!

    [Actually I was fairly active in the green party for quite a while -W]

    I could have gone to the Camp but managed to find excuses. Too wet, not my tribe etc but I think they did something really useful. The media was full, for several days, of coverage which had air travel, CO2 emissions, global warming, Heathrow, no third runway etc in the headlines and coverage.

    [Yes. I know all that. Once I would have thought that it was great, a one-way bet. But you’re missing the point I tried to make: you are assuming (as I would once have) that this must inevitably convince people of the “cause”. But why should it? Without coherent argument, it just makes people make up their minds. One way or another -W]

    Read Paul Kingsnorth for some insight into the younger generation of protestors here http://www.paulkingsnorth.net or check Paul Mason’s “Live Working or Die Fighting” for some more historical (and recent) examples of people trying to make this a better world. Also check out a new piece of work from Chris Rose here http://www.campaignstrategy.org/index.html for “An analysis of the different forms of climate change ‘scepticism’ & the way that the media sometimes exaggerates.”

    [If you want to point me to something specific, please do, but whole sites aren’t so helpful. What I’d like to read is the arguments from these protesters. What are they trying to say? -W]

    When grumpy read outside your field – don’t post.

    Douglas Coker

  10. #10 Richard Tol
    2007/08/22

    I find the protests entirely misguided.

    Flying has probably the highest value per tonne of carbon emitted, and it may well be the last activity we will decarbonise.

    Foreign holidays are dear to people’s hearts. While climate policy was beginning to get accepted by the British mainstream, it has now again been associated with the lunatic fringe that claims that if only we all go live in caves …

    Aviation emissions can be reduced by 30% or so by re-optimising flight routes over Europe, and by building an extra runway at Heathrow so that planes don’t have to circle over London so much. Airline passengers do not have control over that, and airlines in fact have little say to.

  11. #11 Douglas Coker
    2007/08/23

    OK fair enough! Something specific, one paper from Chris Rose. You’ll find it here http://www.campaignstrategy.org/articles/sustaining_disbelief.pdf (18 page pdf). Go to page 3 and see where you might be on the chart. And then check subsequent pages especially page 9 “To Get Action …” and page 14 4th para which starts “More significant … ” I’m new to this social marketing stuff but reckon there is something, probably quite a lot, in it. It’s one of the whole range of tools we need to deploy to deal with this planetary emergency.

    [You misunderstand me. I meant, something specific about why we should be targetting flying above everything else. I don’t think that doc does that. Certainly p3 and 9 don’t -W]

    On the (flying) numbers game an individual who stops flying, especially a frequent flyer will dramatically reduce their CO2 emissions and carbon footprint. Check the calculator you’re using incorporates the times 2.7 extra damage factor.

    Stopping flying is easy, easy – you just stop!!

    Douglas Coker

  12. #12 Dunc
    2007/08/23

    Flying has probably the highest value per tonne of carbon emitted, and it may well be the last activity we will decarbonise.

    Depends very much on you definition of “value”. Which has more value – flying across the Atlantic, or growing crops?

    [RT is an economist, so “value” means “money people are prepared to pay for it” I presume. Certainly some people are prepared to pay lots (or their companies are). But lots of people pay little for cheap flights. I wonder what fraction of air traffic is in each category? Perhaps air fuel tax might help clarify things -W]

    Foreign holidays are dear to people’s hearts. While climate policy was beginning to get accepted by the British mainstream, it has now again been associated with the lunatic fringe that claims that if only we all go live in caves …

    Oh for pity’s sake… Taking a more local holiday is not the end of civilisation. Foreign holidays have only been dear to people’s hearts for 20, maybe 30 years – before that, only the rich could afford them. I find it quite amazing that what was once an unattainable luxury is now regarded as a basic necessity.

    Personally, I’ve enjoyed my holidays more since I quit flying.

    [If you gave them up voluntarily, thats fine. *Forcing* people to stop is unlikely to make the people you’ve forced happy, for the obvious reason that you had to force them. Which brings me back to the original point: what was there about these protests that would make someone change their mind, who wasn’t already on your side? -W]

  13. #13 Eli Rabett
    2007/08/23

    There are what? 5 London airports. Are the others all at capacity?

    [Luton and Stansted are “London” in the sense that Bratislava is “Vienna”. S is convenient for Cambridge though -W]

  14. #14 SteveF
    2007/08/23

    The description of Stanstead as London Stanstead is particularly galling when you have to get there by 7am from North London as I do next Saturday. Having said that, Luton is only 40-odd minutes from Kings Cross, which isn’t much longer than Heathrow or Gatwick. I’ve never been to Stanstead, but I can’t imagine it takes much longer. So, really, only London City is a London airport (and that takes bloody ages to get to despite being relatively central!).

  15. #15 Douglas Coker
    2007/08/23

    Targetting flying is important because for most of us it is absolutely discretionary – we don’t need to do it – in stark contrast to eating, housing ourselves and other essential stuff. And IIRC the Climate Camp pitched up next to a power station last year. Of course we need to target a whole range of activites!!

    I’m now far more aware of the location of the proposed 3rd Heathrow runway and the dire consequences, locally and globally, if this mad project goes ahead.

    Douglas Coker

  16. #16 Adam
    2007/08/23

    Flying is an interesting one as, IIRC, it seems so small a percentage nationally, yet so high individually. This may be obvious on a global scale, yet that it also applies nationally suggests that a small percentage of the population actually flies (any distance).

    As for Stansted & Luton, they both used to be closer time wise than Heathrow before the Express was built (one of the most expensive railway lines in Europe, I think). Stansted is near or at capacity and wants to expand (against vehement local opposition), Luton I think is heavily constrained by the topography. Anyway, it’s the first place to close through fog and the last to re-open again. LCY is surrounded by water. That just leaves Gatwick as a possible expansion and as it hasn’t been touted I guess there’s reasons why that’s the case.

    Obviously though there’s big reason why any expansion would need to be in London. A lot of people flying from there are transferring, or travelling from elsewhere in the country. Expansion of international routes from places like Manchester, Birmingham & Glasgow would probably reduce the crowding over London, and reduce the number of regional flights needed to ferry people from those places to transfer onto international flights.

    I know this is a different question, and I suppose any expansion of most airfields would attract local opposition but would they affect as many people as say Heathrow or any SE based airfield.

    Cambridge of course has its own airfield, but you used to only be able to fly to Amsterdam or Paris from there. Probably can’t even do that now. I’m surprised Marshalls haven’t built a rail stop (there is a line that runs round it) and roped in some low cost airline.

    Sorry, got a bit carried away there.

  17. #17 James Annan
    2007/08/23

    Is it “absolutely discretionary” for me to go to scientific conferences? A scientist who sits in a corner doing his own work without ever talking to other people might as well not exist. Maybe in the future telemeetings will be feasible (I wish), but at the moment they do not exist.

    I suppose I don’t actually need to ever see the other members of my family. OTOH I do generally combine that with a business trip.

    Car-based commuting is “absolutely discretionary” for anyone with the sense to live within a few miles of their job, as I have done for the past 15 years (5 jobs, 4 cities, 2 countries, so it’s not just luck of some local circumstances). It just takes a few minutes thought.

    FWIW, Theifrow Express is the most expensive train line in the world, by a distance (IIRC).

  18. #18 Adam
    2007/08/24

    “FWIW, Theifrow Express is the most expensive train line in the world, by a distance (IIRC).”

    I thought that might be the case, but wondered if a mountain railway somewhere might beat it.

  19. #19 TonyH
    2007/08/24

    Certainly there are mountain railways that beat the Heathrow Express. A single on the Jungfraubahn in Switzerland from Kleine Scheidegg to the top station costs Euro 43.40 single for a distance of 9km, compared with Euro 23.25 for 20km on the Heathrow Express. About four times as expensive, and just as crowded!

    ISTR that the last time Gatwick was expanded (1970s?) the locals were promised no extra runways before 2020. Lots of retired civil servants in that part of the world, too.

  20. #20 Heiko Gerhauser
    2007/08/24

    I think that air travel is vital for bringing people from different nations together, and I therefore directly link it to world peace. The logical corollary of saying that flying is “discretionary” is to say that people shouldn’t eg move from England to Japan to work.

    Not that I am accusing the Heathrow activists of being nationalistic extremists intent on bringing about WWIII … but, I have got a big issue with the claim that air travel is merely a “discretionary” luxury that serves no purpose.

    http://heikoheiko.blogspot.com/search?q=flying

  21. #21 Dunc
    2007/08/24

    If you gave them up voluntarily, thats fine. *Forcing* people to stop is unlikely to make the people you’ve forced happy, for the obvious reason that you had to force them. Which brings me back to the original point: what was there about these protests that would make someone change their mind, who wasn’t already on your side? -W

    I don’t think anybody’s talking about forcing people to stop flying, so I don’t know where that came from…

    [Oh, I thought thats what you were proposing. Do you want people to stop flying? If so, how is this to be achieved? -W]

    As for what there was about these protest to make someone change their mind, have you encountered the concept of the Overton window? Simply getting media coverage of the fact that there are people who object strongly to further airport expansion is an essential first step to counterbalance the almost omnipresent advertising for cheap flights. The constant presence of such advertising normalises flying – by presenting the idea that everybody is doing it. So perhaps it’s good for some people to stand up and say “No, some people are making other choices.” Furthermore, by highlighting the (to many) extreme “sacrifices” that some are prepared to make, it makes lesser lifestyle changes seem more acceptable. It’s an incremental process.

    [Thats a possible argument. The obvious counters are (1) only a few people turned up (certainly far fewer than those who continued to fly from that one airport) and (2) it didn’t look like anyone was making any extreme circumstances; to many, it will have looked like people dossing around in a field -W]

    I agree that such protests are unlikely to directly cause a change of behaviour in anybody who wasn’t already considering it. However, there are many people who are wavering on the issue who might find the knowledge that they are neither alone nor completely insane reassuring, and simply discussing the matter does serve to widen the range of options people regard as reasonable.

    People’s behaviour is shaped, to quite a large extent, by what they see other people doing.

  22. #22 Adam
    2007/08/24

    “Certainly there are mountain railways that beat the Heathrow Express. A single on the Jungfraubahn in Switzerland from Kleine Scheidegg to the top station costs Euro 43.40 single for a distance of 9km, compared with Euro 23.25 for 20km on the Heathrow Express. About four times as expensive, and just as crowded!”

    Thanks for the clarification. The views are probably better on the former though (depending on the weather).

  23. #23 Dunc
    2007/08/24

    Thats a possible argument. The obvious counters are (1) only a few people turned up (certainly far fewer than those who continued to fly from that one airport) and (2) it didn’t look like anyone was making any extreme circumstances; to many, it will have looked like people dossing around in a field -W

    Well, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and you have to start somewhere. And given some of the other comments here and around the web, I think it’s fairly clear that many people regard not taking at least one foreign holiday per year as a pretty extreme action.

    I’m curious though – what is it about this particular protest that causes you to condemn it as ineffective? I can’t, off the top of my head, think of any protest movement, from the anti-slavery campaigns of the 18th and 19th centuries to the boycott of apartheid South Africa in our own lifetimes, which achieved the kind of breakthrough success from a single action that you seem to feel is required here – yet they succeeded in the end.

    Put simply, I don’t regard Damascene conversions as the only valid indicator of success, and I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect protests of any kind to achieve them in significant numbers. That’s simply not how public perception changes.

    [I’m not condeming this one in particular, its just the one I chose to write about. And as I said, this is the first time I realised the bit about crystallisation. I’m not asking for Damascene conversions. I’m asking for reasonned argument. The protesters are failing to supply it -W]

  24. #24 Richard Tol
    2007/08/25

    On value: Tourism and recreation is the second largest industry in the world, second only to health. That suggests that is roughly second on the list of priorities of rich people like us. (And indeed, if I had to choose between a holiday and feeding my family, I would pick the latter, but I do not have to make that choice, thank God.)

    On emission reduction priorities: Reducing carbon dioxide from power generation is cheap, because there are technical alternatives that are only a bit more expensive. Reducing carbon dioxide from ground transport is more expensive, because the technical alternatives are only available in small quantities and at a high premium. Reducing carbon dioxide from aviation is very expensive (bar re-routing and take-off and landing) because there are no technical measures. You have to curtail demand, and that is expensive, economically and politically.

  25. #25 Munin
    2007/08/25

    “there are many people who are wavering on the issue who might find the knowledge that they are neither alone nor completely insane reassuring”

    There’s more to public debate than the Overton window. Extreme views can also help to reinforce prejudices and polarise opinion.

    I’d wager there are many more waverers who saw the climate protesters on the news, thought to themselves “I’m having nothing to do with that shower of crusty hippies”, and guiltlessly booked their next flight to Benidorm.

  26. #26 Eli Rabett
    2007/08/26

    Carbon from ground transport can be seriously reduced by

    1. Increasing intermodal freight movement involving electrified rail

    2. Better urban transport systems through investment and land use planning

    3. Increasing efficiency.

    and a lot more, all of which are sensitive to carbon fuel costs.

  27. #27 Dunc
    2007/08/28

    On value: Tourism and recreation is the second largest industry in the world, second only to health.

    Really? I thought the top 3 were foodstuffs, arms, and drugs, in that order.

    I’d wager there are many more waverers who saw the climate protesters on the news, thought to themselves “I’m having nothing to do with that shower of crusty hippies”, and guiltlessly booked their next flight to Benidorm.

    Maybe, maybe not. In the absence of hard data, who can say? Of course, acquiring good data on attitudes changes is rather difficult…

    I’m not asking for Damascene conversions. I’m asking for reasonned argument. The protesters are failing to supply it -W

    Ah – now I see the problem. Protests aren’t really the places to make such arguments – they never fit legibly on a placard. As to what arguments the protesters themselves are making, it’s difficult to know without being there. I certainly wouldn’t expect the news media to faithfully reproduce them, even if they are made. They rarely do that for proper scientists, never mind the opinions of hippies.

  28. #28 Andrew Dodds
    2007/08/28

    Dunc –

    If you want an argument as to why this may be particularly ineffective, you can follow the intermedia links to:

    http://www.indymedia.org.uk/en/2007/08/379149.html

    I know nuclear power isn’t perfect.. but anyone who can visit Cryosphere Today and oppose nuclear power at the same time really should do some research on ‘Cognitive Dissonance’.

  29. #29 Richard Tol
    2007/08/29

    Dunc: Check your data. We spend only a 3-4% on food, and 2-3% on arms. We spend over 10% on health, and some 10% on recreation and tourism. Data for illegal drugs are hard to get, but I doubt it is more than 1%. Legal drugs are in either food or health.

  30. #30 Dunc
    2007/08/29

    Cheers Richard, I’ll check that out…

    However, accepting your figure of 10% on recreation and tourism, I would observe that not all of that is necessarily dependant on jet travel.

  31. #31 Dunc
    2007/08/29

    Oh, just noticed I overlooked an earlier query I’d like to address:

    I don’t think anybody’s talking about forcing people to stop flying, so I don’t know where that came from…

    [Oh, I thought thats what you were proposing. Do you want people to stop flying? If so, how is this to be achieved? -W]

    Well, firstly, the current protest is opposed to the further expansion of Heathrow, which is hardly the same thing as banning or rationing flying. Secondly, brute force is not my preferred option for achieving any social change, and I’m not convinced it’s necessary. You can discourage people from smoking quite effectively without banning tobacco – the first step is the provision of accurate information about the impacts. I would hope than once people realise the scale of jet aircraft emissions, they’d feel somewhat differently about the matter. As it currently stands, most people I talk to seem to think that they can completely offset the emissions of an annual long-haul return flight by installing CFLs…

    [I think that opposing Heathrow expansion is effectively rationning flying. Also the “climate camp” protest was about more than just protesting expansion (insofar as you could tell what it was about). the first step is the provision of accurate information about the impacts – my point exactly. Thats what they weren’t doing -W]

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