We are the Ronaldos of activism

Environmental campaigners have made far more progress than we realise

If climate activists were football teams, we'd be Brazil. Honestly! Climate change activism is more developed in this country than anywhere else in the world, I've been told now by people from Australia, Germany, Canada, Denmark and the US. Which prompts the question: why?

I think it springs partly from the tradition of protest in this country, the unruly mob rolling around the streets of Britain, looking for a fight. Shakespeare celebrated them in Henry VI, Part II: "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers"; and the British mob was known throughout Europe for what the historian Ian Gilmour called its "sturdy disrespect for its superiors".

Thanks to that history, our judiciary are inclined to be fairly gentle with protesters. At this point, I know activists will be crying: "Bollocks!" But they should try protesting abroad sometime. In China, Sun Xiaodi was imprisoned after he blew the whistle on corruption in the nuclear industry. In Uzbekistan, Makset Kosbergenov, an anti-poaching campaigner, spent months in prison on trumped-up bribery charges, which ended up being dropped. In Mexico, Rodolfo Montiel Flores, an anti-logging campaigner, spent two years in prison before international pressure led to his release. And in the US, activists are regularly banged up and given extremely punitive sentences: this past week one protester was given a 20-day custodial sentence for blockading an energy company, while "eco-terrorists" are given 20-year sentences for arson attacks.

At one point during the recent protests outside Ratcliffe-on-Soar Power Station, as activists wrestled with police for control of a five-metre stretch of fence, a guy with an American accent standing next to me shook his head and said: "Wow. At home, they'd all just have been arrested."

The courts here usually cast a lenient eye on protesters, sometimes letting them off completely (especially when juries get involved; at least twice in the past five years, protesters accused of criminal damage have persuaded juries that they're acting for the greater good, and have been let off scot-free). Even the Drax 29 who held up a coal train, though found guilty, were complimented by the judge on their "eloquent, sincere, moving and engaging case" and handed community service.

I think this semi-blessing by the establishment can only encourage our activists, who now seem to be all over the place, up every chimney or roof, helping other countries organise their own protests and generally organised and motivated to an impressively high degree.

Is it working? That's less clear. We have got some of the toughest climate legislation in the world, but most greens I know say that that's just rhetoric and that the reality on the ground is less encouraging.

I don't know, though. Think back just ten years, to the way we thought and talked about energy, transport, sustainability (actually only about four people in the country talked about sustainability - that's how far we've come). Already, we've come further than we realise.

All the way, though? Well, it's a game of two halves. Think of this as the halftime talk.

This article first appeared in the 09 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Castro