Climate march treads the footsteps of fear

I hate being critical of my peers but the turnout for the Wave protest in London did not deliver Ed Miliband’s exhortation for a populist uprising to make climate change history.

Compared with the anti-war march of 2003, this was a Sunday School outing. Unfair comparison? Not if you accept the Greenpeace billing of Copenhagen as “one of the most important meetings in human history.”

I sensed a unity of purpose but without the words to express it. There was no single robust chant as we passed Downing Street, the march was too long and finished in the dark. You won’t see many photos of the promised blue wave encircling parliament.

I’m not exactly a regular fixture at demonstrations and hesitate to make these judgements. Maybe the poverty and environmental movements are struggling to consummate their union over climate issues. There have been too many days of action, too many campaigns, and too few charismatic voices to wow the media.

The day started more promisingly with my local group, Winchester Action on Climate Change, marching in the midst of our affluent Christmas shoppers. This was the first climate protest to be held in the city, a brave gesture akin to prodding a blancmange with a toothpick.

On the subsequent train journey, we were briefed that one of the formation points for the march was Upper Brook Street alongside the US Embassy. Having spent last week in the tricky task of updating our Terrorism Guide, I inevitably recalled how the concrete block defences against suicide attacks have disfigured that corner of Grosvenor Square.

Sure enough as we got under way I was distracted to find that the route of the march could have doubled up as a tour of London terrorist landmarks.

Soon we were turning into Piccadilly, almost opposite the bus stop between Green Park station and the Ritz, scene of a 1975 IRA bomb attack. Then we were at the bottom of Haymarket close to the nightclub where a mobile phone detonator miraculously failed to explode a car bomb in 2007. Finally we were back with the IRA outside the House of Commons, scene of the murder of senior Tory MP Airey Neave in 1979.

Restoring my frozen circulation afterwards with a drink in the Festival Hall, I pondered the unlikely connections between terrorism and climate change. An obvious starting point was the controversial 2004 suggestion by Sir David King, then the UK government’s chief scientist, that climate change is a bigger threat than terrorism.

I’m more interested in whether we can learn anything from similarities between the two threats rather than their relative capacity for mayhem. The essence of terrorism as a tactic is to instil fear amongst a civilian population. No one knows where the next indiscriminate attack will occur.

Extreme weather is equally unpredictable and, if such events begin to overwhelm infrastructure, then fear amongst ordinary people will increasingly accompany the passage of climate change.

We can therefore reasonably deduce that the willingness of governments to invest vast sums on counter-terrorism will be replicated in the construction of defences against “natural” disasters. We can already see this happening with the massive budgets allocated to flood protection in the UK and elsewhere.

Persuading these same governments to finance adaptation funds to calm the climate fears of populations in other countries is one of the unknowns of the Copenhagen conference.

Another interesting parallel is the issue of definition. The UN has tried and failed to construct an acceptable definition which separates terrorist acts from other violence for the purposes of international law.

To put it mildly we have that same problem with climate change. If only the science could define which climate impacts are man-made and which arise from natural variability, much of the political inertia might be lifted.

And the way forward? We could be pessimistic and suggest that our fractured international governance is incapable of solving either terrorism or climate change.

Or we should assert positively that OneWorld’s vision of a less divided world, where access to resources and to the political process becomes more balanced, is the necessary platform for addressing both these daunting contemporary issues.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK