Power Generation! The Climate Camp at Kingsnorth

Paul M looks at the politics of the Climate Camp and its decision to go to Kingsnorth. Originally published in May 2008.

The climate camp this year will be at Kingsnorth Power Station in Kent. On the obscure Kentish peninsular of Hoo, a profoundly important struggle over the future of how we respond to the twin problems of climate change and the evolving energy crisis will start unfolding this summer…

Despite the growing evidence of how serious a problem climate change is, E.O.N. wants to build the UK’s first coal fired power station in thirty years to replace the current power station at Kingsnorth when it retires in 2015. If built this power station will emit 6 to 8 million tons of CO2 every year . That’s a hell of a lot of CO2 to add to the atmosphere when usually cautious scientists are saying there is a climate crisis and that there is an increasing risk that our growing emissions of CO2 will trigger catastrophic climate change. It’s a lot of CO2 to add to the atmosphere at the very time we need to be radically reducing CO2 levels. Not only that but another six atmosphere crushing coal fired power stations are in the pipeline. What happens at Kingsnorth is vitally important. If we’re serious about tackling climate change we have to get serious about stopping Kingsnorth being built.

So on one side are E.O.N and the government. Their solution to climate change is (well they don’t really care but) in word at least a commitment to carbon trading, nuclear energy and, at the outer edge of possibility, carbon capture and storage. Their solution to problems of energy supply insecurity is to build into the grid a range of different generators, all large-scale based around coal, gas, nuclear and some wind. On the other side are NGOs like Greenpeace and WDM and a potentially crucial grassroots mobilisation in the form of the climate camp. The NGOs are calling for no new coal without carbon capture and storage and as an alternative to coal fired electricity generation investment in renewables and efficiency. The climate camp is attempting to catalyse a grassroots challenge to the growth economy and if it sticks to previous trends will call for a reduction in demand and relocalisation within the context of a global struggle against the fossil fuel industry and the continuing capitalist enclosure of remaining hydro carbons and forests.

The camp should be somewhere else?

The decision to go to Kingsnorth wasn’t without controversy. In terms of other options many felt that this year’s camp should focus on biofuels. In addition, since the decision to go to Kingsnorth has been made some worry that this shows a tendency towards the camp becoming some kind of lobbying group. So it’s worth answering that question and looking into (at least from this scribbler’s point of view) why the choice to go to Kingsnorth was a good one from a long-term strategic point of view. The related question of whether this choice allows for anti-capitalist critique is dealt with later.

Why not biofuels?

It’s hard to argue that in the broad context either biofuels or coal is the more important issue. Climate change is caused by both the burning of fossil fuels and the destruction of forest ecosystems. Whilst at first the debate about where the camp should go seemed to be about the relative political importance of either issue it became clear that the camp wasn’t about any particular issue and was essentially a base for movement building. So then the question became which location offers us the best place for geographically located resistance to the problem of climate change. This in a sense is the root of the camp. It recognised that the problem of climate change was too big and abstract for people to deal with so it creates an iconic space for people to gather. The place is as crucial, if not more crucial than the issue. Overall, while no one would really say coal was more important, it was felt that Kingsnorth offered a more iconic place than any of the biofuels options. That said, a critique of biofuels and the importance of ecosystems destruction has become part of the climate camp’s political critique and there is a commitment to actions on biofuels during the camp.

Has the camp become some kind of lobbying organisation?

This question has been raised because both last year at Heathrow and this year at Kingsnorth the camp is intervening in a process in which a decision from government on expansion is pending. In the circumstances if enough pressure is applied the government could be forced to change its mind. Secondly, on both these occasions NGOs with a less explicitly ‘radical’ message are also involved. At Kingsnorth Greenpeace and WDM both have strong campaigns against the power station.

What’s lobbying? Conventionally it’s the idea that people using various means - from directly talking to sending letters to organising public meetings - attempt to persuade government officials to change government policy on an issue. More broadly it could be stretched to mean political activity whose aim is to change government policy. The idea of lobbying is to use whatever channels there are to put pressure on government to change. Clearly we’re not engaged in conventional lobbying, we’re not trying to persuade the government to change its mind through rational argument or through using the normal democratic channels provided by the democratic process. We recognise that government and E.O.N will build the power station unless they are forced not to. There has been no communication between the climate camp and the government or E.O.N. We’re not politely asking them to not build the power station. We’re saying: you want to build but we have different ideas.

The anti-roads movement was not a lobbying organisation but its big success was changing government policy on transport. Likewise the radical campaign to stop GM wasn’t a lobbying campaign but it changed government policy. We have to make what we do count. As a location for the camp Drax was inspiring and symbolically powerful, but did it make any real difference? The camp at Heathrow had a real impact on the campaign to stop the third runway. The challenge is to remain true to our radical vision whilst acting in strategic ways that make change possible.

The difference between us and the NGOs campaigning on Kingsnorth is that we also want other things. Victories over Kingsnorth and Heathrow are necessary but far from sufficient.

However aren’t there other decisions that are more important to affect? And how about, rather than getting the corporations and government to not make a decision they want to make, force them into making a diction that wasn’t even on the horizon?

This was why the first camp at Drax had so much potential. However much it is important that we stop Kingsnorth being built, how much more powerful would it be if we could close down a power station that was already running? It’s still the same process but a much more powerful one.

Tactically however it would be magnitudes harder. If a hundred thousand miners failed to do it then it seems that for us for the time being camping outside Drax has powerful symbolic value but will actually change very little. That’s why in a sense Kingsnorth is the radical choice. We have a real chance to affect change and in terms of movement building giving people the sense that they are participating in history and making it happen is crucially important.

In addition going to Kingsnorth helps us see beyond the camp. Clearly our response to climate change can’t be limited to a yearly camp. Which beyond a few times will start to feel like an annual countdown to disaster. Going to Kingsnorth situates us in the middle of a campaign. If we’re serious about climate change then we have to be serious about Kingsnorth and that means planning and preparing a campaign to stop it being built. Heathrow is important but Kingsnorth is far more imminent.

Coal and Anti-Capitalism

The Climate Camp has a radical anti-growth or even anti-capitalist agenda. So how does Kingsnorth offer a platform for this radical critique when other groups such as Greenpeace and Christian Aid are also campaigning against it?

Is there some uncorrupted physical space of pure anti-capitalist opposition? Whatever we decide to do (if it’s at all relevant), from being against GM or No Borders or anti- G8 and supporting strikers, it will on the surface mean that we are opposed to or for things that other groups with less radical agendas also agree with. The question is how we campaign, where we see it taking us, what we say and what we’re building for. The fact that other groups are also interested in Kingsnorth and Heathrow means we’re actively engaging with a wider community and we should be brave enough to make our arguments both as part of and antagonistic to that community. Christian Aid are against Kingsnorth but not against the growth economy: well, let them explain how we’re going to have annual growth of 2%, reduce emissions by 90% and end inequality.

Too much of the anti-capitalism ‘movement’ is just an ideological identity love-in. But if we’re serious about change then we have to get out of the activist ghetto. And in the end that probably means getting involved in issues that other people also care about.

One of the big problems with the camp at Heathrow was the difficulty in making a systemic critique stick. Because it was an airport it was assumed we were against people flying - and in truth lots of people were. So despite a Herculean effort to focus on the corporations, part of the overall message was that people that fly are the problem (which is true but only the first part of a more complex problem).

Kingsnorth is all about corporate and government power. The story is about how big money will do anything (even burn coal in the middle of a climate crisis) to expand or at least maintain its position. Kingsnorth exposes a fundamental truth at the heart of power. It doesn’t matter if it’s wanted or not, it doesn’t matter if it does any one any good or not; if it makes money it’s fine by us.

How do the government and E.O.N justify building this power station?

There are two arguments that justify the building of Kingsnorth. Firstly, that the problem of emissions will be dealt with through the emissions trading scheme. As if the need for action is so limited a country the size of the UK can raise its emissions and expect all the necessary reduction to come from somewhere else. And secondly, the government believe that energy security is more important than climate change, so they’re going to build it in the belief that in public the argument that we have to ‘keep the lights on’ trumps the more distant problem of climate change.

Keep it in the ground.

The simple fact about coal is that if we burn all or even much more of the coal ‘reserves’ on this planet then we’re toast. It’s that simple. Millions of years’ worth of solar energy and carbon are stored in these compressed prehistoric forests. Burn all this energy in a few decades and it’s over. So along with our anti-growth message our central message this year should be ‘Keep it in the Ground’. It’s simple, it’s necessary, and fully acted out it’s very radical.

It’s simple. Keep it in the ground. Anyone can understand what it means and it makes the lines clear. Some people will do anything to burn the stuff; some people believe in a world where fossil fuels stay in the ground.

It’s necessary. If we burn all the coal, oil and gas on the planet then in terms of ecological systems we will cause levels of warming and disruption that take us into extremely dangerous territory. The struggle for a fairer, more ecological world has to be a struggle to keep coal in the ground (also oil and gas but because of the scale of the ‘reserves’ particularly coal).

It’s radical. Growth at its current rates would be impossible without burning astonishing quantities of oil, gas and coal. It would be a mistake to think that this makes this message a purely anti-capitalist one. You can have hierarchical and even capitalist relations of production when you burn wood (early US industrialisation for example). You can have hideous exploitation on organic farms with no fossil fuel inputs. But like No Borders it’s a politically necessary message without being fully sufficient. A society that keeps fossil fuels in the ground will be fundamentally different. How it’s different will be up to the people struggling to make it happen.

Clean Coal?

There’s been an algae-soaked sea of greenwash in the past decade but first prize has to go to this simple two-word combination: Clean Coal. These two words (along with the size of coal reserves and its relative cheapness compared to increasingly expensive oil and gas) have breathed new life into the coal industry. There is of course no such thing as clean coal. Just like there is no such thing as clean anthrax or clean fission.

New generating technologies have improved the efficiency of coal fired power stations from around 35% to 45%. So one could say slightly less dirty coal. But these efficiency gains also reduce costs, which increases demand so whether there is any overall improvement is doubtful.

There’s also the much-lauded possibility of using Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) to clean emissions up (or at least bury them). CCS is a method for stripping the CO2 out, condensing it and burying it in salt aquifiers and old or partially used oil and gas wells. The key thing about CCS is that it’s science fiction. At the scale of a large power plant it doesn’t exist. It’s at least 20 years away at any big scale of usage and, given that the next decade is crucial, CCS can make little difference to climate change. There’s the possibility that a small part of Kingsnorth might run a CCS experiment. They want to talk about CCS but the real issue is burning coal, which is what Kingsnorth will be doing in spade-fulls (well ship-fulls). Even in the unlikely event that they do successfully build a CCS section to the plant, Kingsnorth will still emit 6 million tons of CO2 a year. That’s a lot more than the third runway at Heathrow would produce.

There are other problems with CCS, but given that it doesn’t exist there’s not much point in focusing on it. Fusion nuclear might not be a great idea but we don’t run campaigns against it because like CCS it’s still 20 years away. There are even circumstances where CCS might be a good thing but these circumstances will only arise if we win the bigger fight over climate change and energy in the here and now.

Beyond Greenwash!

We’ve entered a phase that goes beyond greenwash. Clean coal is greenwash in that the coal industry uses the term to further its ends. In a step that goes further than this, governments and corporations are now using climate change to create a world in their image, to fundamentally buttress their idea of how the world should work. They use climate change to spread fear and support the extension of the free market ideology, and the idea of progress as the development of technology. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t campaign against climate change; it just means we have to be clear we’re not only against anthropomorphic climate change; we’re against the economic and social forces that cause it.

Where next?

Almost everyone involved in the camp sees the need to move beyond the idea of doing an annual camp. The idea of the camp was to help catalyse something bigger and more enduring. A serious strategic engagement with this issue will have to work for local change whilst be willing to come together to take on issues of national importance issues where no local group could be big enough to generate the opposition necessary e.g. Heathrow or Kingsnorth. Equally it will have to look at the issue of work. Without engaging in the work we do, how we do it, and how we can build a global movement to change the way we do it, we will only scrape the surface of change. So what should we do next? Well lots of things but fairly high up the list is stopping Kingsnorth. We cannot have a successful grassroots movement on climate change if it doesn’t challenge the building of this next generation of coal fired power stations. The good news is that it’s just such a confrontation that might be that making of the movement.

Sonofamigrant or Paul M as he is otherwise known is involved in the Climate Camp networking group (aahhrgg) and works part time for Greenpeace. If he can’t sleep he occasionally gets up and taps out random hazy thoughts on his computer. On this occasion the Shift dream catcher caught these ones.