Why we need direct action on climate change

Governments are not responding with anywhere near the urgency that climate change demands.

It is a complicated defence, the defence of necessity. Last week, 20 people admitted their plan to shut down Ratcliffe-on-Soar coal-power station, but justified their actions as being to prevent death and serious injury from the carbon emissions. A jury heard compelling evidence on the horror of climate change, but still returned a guilty verdict. We'll never know what those 12 people discussed, but that governments are failing us all is clearer than ever.

Yes, they were acting – or planning to act – through an unconventional process. Had the plan gone ahead, arrests would have been inevitable. But, given time to present their evidence, research and sophisticated safety measures, the defendants adeptly explained why their actions were reasonable.

Not only would they have prevented the release of 150,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide (more than they could ever have saved in their lifetimes) in a week-long shutdown, but these people could have saved human lives in the future. Any doubts about the urgency of climate change or its impact on human health and social stability were addressed by a prolific selection of expert witnesses, including the Nasa climatologist James Hansen and the epidemiologist Anthony McMichael.

Which leaves as the only issue whether this was a reasonable response to the urgent climate crisis. And that centres on one question: is there any hope for conventional channels of political change, both nationally and internationally?

During the case, both I and Alan Simpson, a former MP, gave evidence to explain the "democratic deficit" – the fact that governments are not responding with anywhere near the urgency that climate change demands. The UK has passed legislation to cut emissions by 80 per cent by 2050, but as there is no actual plan to achieve even this inadequate target, we are continuing to pollute. Internationally, we have just seen the Cancún summit fail to achieve any legally binding agreement, and the most immediate ramifications continue to hit vulnerable people who have done nothing to cause this crisis.

Perhaps the jury was persuaded by the prosecution arguments that we can save the climate through small individual actions like compost loos and second-hand clothes. These are important, but history shows that there have always been people working against the grain to create essential change.

The civil rights movement and the suffragettes are examples of normal people making a difference by stepping outside their comfort zones. An example closer to home is the "Kingsnorth Six" – Greenpeace activists who were charged with criminal damage after scaling Kingsnorth coal-fired power station, yet were eventually acquitted in a similar case to this one.

There are some politicians in parliament willing to make climate change an overriding priority of the government and it's crucial to have them there. But by and large, the political process continues to support business as usual – and the tiny reforms discussed in Cancún fail to address the root causes of climate change. Any improvements we gain from such a deal will make little, if any, long-term difference to the lives lost and species destroyed.

The Ratcliffe activists are part of a wider grass-roots movement working for climate justice. The People's Summit in Cochabamba, Bolivia, in April this year, showed that people are coming together in all kinds of ways, to deliberated as well as take peaceful direct action, to seek serious alternatives, while governments continue with their frustrating inaction.

As the defendants said after court, "Taking action on climate change is not an act of moral righteousness, but of self-defence." While so many politicians are failing in their duty to act on behalf of the people, and while the legal system continues to protect big polluters, we all should learn something from those willing to take action on climate change.

Caroline Lucas is leader of the Green Party and MP for Brighton Pavilion.

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.

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Leader: Trump and an age of disorder

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions.

The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Donald Trump is by some distance its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout his campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a braggart and a narcissist.

The naive hope that Mr Trump’s victory would herald a great moderation was dispelled by his conduct during the transition. He compared his country’s intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany and repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election. He derided Nato as “obsolete” and predicted the demise of the European Union. He reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling Obamacare and to overturning Roe v Wade. He doled out jobs to white nationalists, protectionists and family members. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. Asked whether he regretted any part of his vulgar campaign, he replied: “No, I won.”

Of all his predilections, Mr Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin is perhaps the most troubling. When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, warned that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, he was mocked by Barack Obama. Yet his remark proved prescient. Rather than regarding Mr Putin as a foe, however, Mr Trump fetes him as a friend. The Russian president aims to use the US president’s goodwill to secure the removal of American sanctions, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and respect for the murderous reign of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has a worryingly high chance of success.

Whether or not Mr Trump has personal motives for his fealty (as a lurid security dossier alleges), he and Mr Putin share a political outlook. Both men desire a world in which “strongmen” are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of external rebuke. Mr Trump’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence provides Mr Putin with every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires. The historic achievement of peace and stability in eastern Europe is in danger.

As he seeks reconciliation with Russia, Mr Trump is simultaneously pursuing conflict with China. He broke with precedent by speaking on the telephone with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and used Twitter to berate the Chinese government. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, has threatened an American blockade of the South China Sea islands.

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions. The US constitution, with its separation of powers, was designed to restrain autocrats such as the new president. Yet, in addition to the White House, the Republicans also control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority. The decline of established print titles and the growth of “fake news” weaken another source of accountability.

In these circumstances, there is a heightened responsibility on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, Mr Trump. Angela Merkel’s warning that co-operation was conditional on his respect for liberal and democratic values was a model of the former. Michael Gove’s obsequious interview with Mr Trump was a dismal example of the latter.

Theresa May has rightly rebuked the president for his treatment of women and has toughened Britain’s stance against Russian revanchism. Yet, although the UK must maintain working relations with the US, she should not allow the prospect of a future trade deal to skew her attitude towards Mr Trump. Any agreement is years away and the president’s protectionist proclivities could yet thwart British hopes of a beneficial outcome.

The diplomatic and political conventions embodied by the “special relationship” have endured for more than seven decades. However, Mr Trump’s election may necessitate their demise. It was the belief that the UK must stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US that led Tony Blair into the ruinous Iraq War. In this new age of disorder, Western leaders must avoid being willing accomplices to Mr Trump’s agenda. Intense scepticism, rather than sycophancy, should define their response.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era