"What we urgently need is social change on an unprecedented scale. And that has always meant direct action: if it weren't for that, women wouldn't have the vote and we'd still be selling slaves. We need the same kind of paradigm shift now." Leo Murray is sitting in a cheap Indian restaurant in north London, telling me about his plans to save the world. I've come to meet him and other members of Plane Stupid, one of a new wave of militant environmental groups that are determined to force the pace of the climate-change debate.
Following the publication of the Stern report detailing the potentially catastrophic economic impact of climate change, environmental issues are on the mainstream agenda like never before. Ministers have been falling over one another to announce initiatives on cutting carbon emissions, and Tony Blair has hailed the document as "the most important report on the future I have received since becoming Prime Minister".
For those in the green movement, this presents both an opportunity and a dilemma. To what extent should activist groups work within the structures that the government is setting up to tackle the problem? "It's too urgent now," says Murray. "I hear the government talking a lot of hot air about climate change, but I look around and there's still nothing actually happening. We haven't got the time to waste. Making changes in our own lives is important but it isn't going to make the difference. We have five, ten, maybe 15 years to implement massive changes to the way everyone lives. That requires fast and wide-reaching government action."
Plane Stupid made headlines in September, when 24 of its members occupied the runway of Nottingham East Midlands Airport for four hours in a peaceful protest to draw attention to the environmental damage caused by flying. Having delayed a thousand passengers, they were arrested and charged with aggravated trespass and causing a public nuisance. Several of them - including Rose and Ellen Rickford, aged 21 and 18, respectively - say they were held in solitary confinement for 36 hours. Their houses were raided, and computers, mobile phones, diaries and address books were confiscated. The case is due to be heard later this year.
The harshness of the response has not dented the determination of the activists. The six 18- to 30-year-olds eating curry around the table talk with quasi-religious zeal about their mission to halt airport expansion, ban short-haul flights and force the government to curb the excesses of multinational business.
"The responsibility is all on our generation, here and now," says Murray. "The people of the past didn't know what the problem was. For the people of the future it's going to be too late. People in developing countries are powerless to do anything about it. If we don't do this, it's not going to get done."
This Saturday, 4 November, sees the annual National Climate March in central London, one of several demonstrations worldwide intended to welcome the beginning of the UN climate talks in Nairobi on the following Monday. Last year 10,000 took part, the organisers claim; this year, they expect more. The larger green NGOs are organising an event in Trafalgar Square, and the Campaign against Climate Change is planning a protest outside the US embassy.
But, for Plane Stupid, marching is not enough. Ellen Rickford, one of the group's youngest members, spent her early teenage years campaigning against the war in Iraq. "The big anti-war march was one of my first political experiences. I saw all those people take to the streets against the war and they were ignored," she says. "This is a bigger, more important issue, and I'm not going to allow that to happen again. The only thing left to do is take direct action."
Plane Stupid wants to make short-haul flights the "front line" in the battle against the aviation industry: "It is entirely realistic to expect people to give up flying short distances tomorrow. We have a perfectly good train network," says Murray. It has called a "day of action" for 6 November, during which organisations around Britain plan to disrupt airports, the group says.
The new wave of environmental militancy reflects a feeling that large, established NGOs such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have failed to put the case with sufficient urgency. "Basically, Greenpeace isn't radical enough, and the way it relates to other protest groups is often bullying," says Murray. "Some of its earlier campaigns, like the Rainbow Warrior anti-whaling protests, were really effective. But now it only seems to organise publicity stunts."
Nicholas Hutton, chairman of the Campaign against Climate Change, describes a "radical difference in culture" between the large NGOs and grass-roots activists at events such as Climate Camp: "The big NGOs have become too close to the government. Jonathon Porritt, formerly director of Friends of the Earth, is now working in a quasi-governmental role at the Sustainable Development Commission. It's a revolving door. Last year at the climate-change march, Greenpeace was briefing people not to demonstrate in order not to jeopardise their negotiations with governments."
For other factions of the environmental movement, however, illegal actions such as those undertaken by Plane Stupid risk alienating the wider public from the issue.
"In their most extreme form, protests like this can be counter-productive," says Simon Retallack, head of climate change at the Institute for Public Policy Research. "The Seattle protests in 1999, where people smashed up shopfronts and so on, simply created the impression that this was a bunch of hooligans.
"The problem is that those engaged in this very impassioned kind of protest use the language of alarm and outrage, which appeals to them, but doesn't engage with the concerns of wider society. What we need now is to engage the whole population with these issues, and that means we've got to start talking in a language which makes sense to them."
As with the road protests of the 1990s, there is now significant potential for the environ mental movement to develop into a widespread campaign of civil disobedience. Across Britain, campaigners have begun to make contacts, set up networks and plan co-ordinated protests or "actions". There is no overarching organisation, but an organic network of groups and individuals has, over the past year, been getting together, discussing the issues and sharing knowledge about direct-action techniques, legal represen tation and media strategy.
The seeds were planted this summer at Climate Camp, a week-long green meeting that precipitated protests outside the Drax power station in Selby, North Yorkshire. The publicity generated by that campaign has convinced many activists that direct action is an essential means for moving forward. "The Greenham protests started with 36 women marching on a US airbase. Within four years, you had 50,000 women camped outside, and the most successful campaign of its era," says Joss Garman, one of the founders of Plane Stupid. "At Drax, we didn't have 36 people on the first day - we had 700. And it will only get bigger."
Individuals and groups all over the country are making links not only with each other, but also with residents' organisations in areas affected by power stations and airports. The Reverend Malcolm Carroll, who works for Greenpeace and was one of those arrested during Plane Stupid's Nottingham protest, says that he went to meet a group of residents near a power station recently, only to find that three other direct-action groups were already targeting the same area. "People are waking up to the fact that the government is not going to provide leadership on the environment," Carroll says. "If people want things to change, they are going to have to do it themselves."
Through events such as Climate Camp, a young generation of activists has come into contact with those who took part in direct-action campaigns such as the anti-Newbury bypass movement and Reclaim the Streets, the colourful anti-capitalism demonstrations that swept the country during the 1990s. In an age in which idealism has gone out of fashion, politically minded young people are finding an outlet in the environmental movement.
"I was never interested in party politics or adopting an ideology," says Theo Middleton, a 20-year-old student and Plane Stupid activist. "I realised that the only thing that matters, in the final analysis, is the destruction of the earth. The environmental movement is a complete cross-section of people from different backgrounds and political perspectives, and that is how it should be."
"The tradition of radical protest which seem-ed to dissipate after the 11 September attacks is beginning to re-coalesce around environmental issues," says Hutton. "There is an interchange between the generations of protesters, and they are beginning to mobilise into a significant political force. But while these groups certainly have a part to play, we should not be intoxicated by the idea that we are going to effect real change by going and sitting on runways."
It is hardly surprising that the activists in Plane Stupid pursue their campaign with such enthusiasm. Having spent much of their young adult lives feeling ignored by the government, they clearly feel exhilarated to have found that direct action can give them a voice. "While we were sitting on that runway, it was amazing to think that, right then, we were stopping carbon emissions," says Garman. "People are so used to feeling completely helpless on this issue. But in that moment, we felt that we had the power."