My favourite climate protesters Plane Stupid struck again this morning when they shut down Stansted, London's third airport.
Taking advantage of a temporary maintenance closure in the small hours of the morning, they set up a camp on the runway. Wearing high visibility vests with the message, "Please DO something", and raising a banner which read 'Climate Emergency', they barricaded themselves with fortified security fencing. The blockade led to 56 Ryanair short-haul flights being cancelled, and the eventual arrest of over fifty young climate activists. Oh, and prevented the release of thousands of tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere in the process - the average flight out of Stansted has a climate impact equivalent to 41.58 tonnes of CO2.
Listening to the news coverage of this story really brought home to me how schizophrenic our national attitude to climate change is. Yes, apparently as a nation we pretty much all agree that something MUST be done - but when anyone actually does anything people are up in arms about the infringement of their rights. In this case, among the passengers inconvenienced were a woman on her way to her second home in France (who helpfully told a Press Association interviewer that it was only cheap flights which made her second home viable) and another on a day's shopping trip to Bremen "for a girly day out".
But they are simply taking their cues about what it is acceptable to do (such as flying out to a second home or a Christmas market) from society. Which is why the signals the government sends out are so important. Currently aviation is the fastest growing contributor to climate change, and flights from Gatwick, Stansted and Heathrow criss-cross London's skies continually. Much of this is unnecessary short-haul traffic. Yet not only is the government are doing nothing about it, they're actually pushing for a massive increase in air travel. And aviation is very lightly taxed - no VAT is paid on flights, or fuel. In fact, overall the aviation industry is subsidised by taxpayers to the tune of £9 billion.
Why is it a special case? Why don't we pay the true costs of flying? The government implies that aviation expansion is essential to keep our economy growing, but projected figures for the Stansted expansion indicate that it will actually take more money out of the economy than it will bring in - and there is already a £15 billion annual deficit in aviation tourism – that's the difference between the amount of money spent abroad by Britons flying out of the UK (£26 billion) and the amount visitors to the UK spend here (£11 billion).
When the best available climate science predicts that we have less than a hundred months to get a grip on climate change before it spins out of control, government dithering and inaction is not an option. We need leadership on this, the most important issue of our generation, and we need it now. And if they are not up to it, somebody else has to. Read this comment from Plane Stupid activist Tilly, aged 21:
"We all grew up listening to Blair and Brown talking about the urgent need to slash emissions, but nothing ever happened. Even now politicians from our parents' generation are in Poland holding talks about talks, but still nobody's actually doing anything. The scientists tell us we've got about seven years to make emissions peak then drop, and if we fail it will be the people on this runway, and our children, who'll live with the consequences. That's why I'm doing this."
And Lily, another 21 year old involved in the Stansted protest, said
"We're here because our parents' generation has failed us and its now down to young people to stop climate change by whatever peaceful means we have left. We're afraid of what the police might do to us, we're afraid of going to jail but nothing scares us as much as the threat of runaway climate change. We've thought through the consequences of what we're doing here but we're determined to stop as many tonnes of CO2 as we can."
Hats off to you both - it's a brave and noble thing you're doing. Climate change secretary Ed Miliband recently called for a Suffragette-style movement to pressure governments to act. It looks like he got his wish. And let's not forget that while the Suffragettes were disruptive and lambasted by the establishment of the day, they have been utterly vindicated by history. No doubt it will be the same with Plane Stupid.