By Ella Gilbert MSc - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, January 30, 2016
Last week thirteen members of UK direct action group Plane Stupid were found guilty of aggravated trespass and unlawfully entering a restricted area of an aerodrome for their part in an action last July. The #Heathrow13 occupied Heathrow airport’s northern runway for a record-breaking 6 hours, preventing hundreds, if not thousands, of tonnes of CO2 from being emitted. The action took place shortly after the release of the Davies Report, a government-commissioned report on airport expansion in the Southeast that recommended a third runway be built at Heathrow.
There are many issues here: for one thing, the Prime Minister David Cameron promised in a pre-election manifesto not to build a third runway, “no ifs, no buts”. The recommendation for a third runway therefore represents another massive U-turn on the part of the Conservative government, who also once claimed to be part of the ‘greenest government ever’. Meanwhile, the Tories have scrapped subsidies for wind energy, removed feed-in tariffs and support for small-scale community energy projects and given the go-ahead to grant fracking licenses. All of their actions are in direct opposition to the Climate Change Act 2008, a radical piece of legislation that requires the UK to reduce emissions by 80% relative to 1990 by 2050. If we are to meet these (legally binding) targets, aviation cannot be allowed to continue to emit as it does.
Yet Heathrow is just part of the problem. Building a runway anywhere in the UK will be massively damaging to the environment. Indeed, the Davies Commission investigated three options for expansion, none of which was not to expand at all. This is revealing of the government’s priorities: they would rather lock up peaceful activists and profit from human suffering than lose out on the £7bn a year that Heathrow apparently contributes to the UK economy.
Aviation cannot be readily decarbonised, and is one of the most polluting industries around. The emission of pollutants at cruising altitude makes their effects more pronounced and contributes considerably to climate change. On the ground, emissions of air pollutants like particulate matter and NOx cause severe respiratory illnesses and deaths in the local area. Within the 32km surrounding Heathrow, 31 deaths per year are directly attributable to emissions of NOx from aircraft.
Flying is also a preserve of the wealthy – in the UK, 70% of flights are taken by 15% of people, and only 5% of people globally have ever flown at all. This is a clear demonstration of global and national inequality. The whims of rich leisure flyers are prioritised over the lives and livelihoods of poor people who have to breathe toxic pollutants and lose their homes to rising seas. Aviation also enjoys a privileged status – aviation is not included in any climate negotiations or legislation and aircraft fuel and tickets are exempt from VAT. Imagine that – we live in a country where tampons are considered a luxury item and taxed as such, while a flight to a ski resort is not. The cost of meeting climate targets is never passed on, and airlines continue to get a free ride for exploiting us.
Exploitation is big business. Exploitation of the environment, of resources and of workers. Corporations like Heathrow Airport Ltd. are making billions from an industry that is contributing to premature deaths in the local area and around the world. And of course, it is the poorest people who get hit the hardest, and hit first.
In a capitalist society, a few people control the means of production, and they use this to exert their influence on the majority of people, profiting from their labour. This is a story of inequalities: Heathrow has the power and clout of the judicial system, financial backing, and a PR company behind them, whereas ordinary people have nothing but their bodies and their intellect at their disposal. Direct action is one way of redressing this vast imbalance and wresting back some control.
It scares those in power to think that people might begin to take things into their own hands and make change. That is why an example is being made here. The #Heathrow13 may soon be the first UK climate prisoners, but they certainly won’t be the last. To paraphrase Howard Zinn - action outside the law is essential to democracy. You’ll never change outdated laws without breaking them. We must challenge the capitalist status quo that abuses natural resources and people in equal and devastating measure with what means we have. It will take the sacrifices of thousands of normal people to break oppressive structures that exploit people and the environment, but the tide is turning.