Climate Camp is Back – And It’s Trying Something New

Ineos, watch out.

by Douglas Rogers

4 July 2023

Climate Camp Scotland 2022 in Torry, Aberdeen. Slimate Camp Scotland/Twitter

The first time I came across Climate Camp Scotland (CCS) was at a ceilidh in Edinburgh in February. The event was styled as a fundraiser for this year’s camp – now just a week away – but the reality was much more interesting. In five years of climate activism, I’d never seen so many different projects in one room: from veterans of direct action groups to an eco-feminist book club to local ceilidh-lovers with no previous connection to the climate scene.

This green intersection was no accident. Since CCS first formed in 2019, its goal has been to “bring people together”. Easier said than done, not least in a pandemic. And there’s no shortage of outfits with similar intentions. But since 2022, CCS has established itself as an essential feature of the Scottish climate scene. In a multipolar, largely post-XR landscape, CCS is one of the few names that pops up just about everywhere.

CCS is aiming at something bold and new – what spokesperson Jess calls “a constant reimagining of what climate justice means”. This isn’t just rhetoric, either, but a plan for sustained collaboration with specific communities as part of a much deeper revisiting of strategy, tactics, and the very meaning of climate activism.

Climate Camp 1.0.

Climate camp itself is not a new idea, of course. It might even have been the UK climate movement’s first idea.

Camp for Climate Action (CCA) began in 2006 at Drax Power Station, Yorkshire. From today’s standpoint, its methods and general approach might seem familiar, even cliché: hundreds camping near a climate crime scene; disrupting said location with direct action, lock-on tubes, tripods; framing their actions in reference to climate models and targets.

The idea – both of taking direct action in the name of ‘climate’ and the more specific premise of a camp – took off. By 2009, there were camps popping up all over the UK and across the world.

The model had a range of strengths, and each found emphasis in different places. Ende Gelände – born out of the German Klimacamp im Rheinland – became the champion of camps as staging-points for massive incursive disruptions of fossil fuel infrastructure. Other camps like Venice and Turin prioritised movement-building and internal work.

Others grew roots. The ZAD movement in France began by setting up a camp at the site of an airport expansion in 2008, which remained in place until its victory in 2018 and was emulated nationwide. In the UK, successful offshoots include Grow Heathrow (2010-21) and Scotland’s Mainshill Solidarity Camp (2009).

Police patrol the Camp for Climate Action on the site of the proposed expansion for Heathrow Airport, London, August 2007. Luke MacGregor/Reuters

But these many forms of climate camping, for all their varied magic, heroism and self-scrutiny, have one common drawback: a persistent divide between ‘activists’ and ‘everyday people’. Howard, a veteran of CCA, tells Novara Media the local reception at Kingsnorth in 2008 was “about half supportive, the other half much more loudly oppositional”. Ende Gelände, charisma notwithstanding, has regularly faced counter-demonstrations. And even long-term projects like the ZADs elicit “mixed feelings” from locals, who in any case figure as separate entities.

On some level, this problem is baked into our whole concept of activism, going back to the 1990s or even earlier. As one writer put it in 1999: “Taking on the role of an activist separates you from the rest of the human race as someone special and different.”

More particular to climate camp (though certainly related) is the peer-reviewed case made by three veterans that CCA struggled to surpass the “post-political” character of the society it challenged. They describe how “fetishising” carbon preceded other politics, such that camps’ locations were decided on and framed in terms of annual emissions and little else – most unsettlingly when “military air bases were targeted not because of their function [in the Iraq War], but because the function could be more energy efficient”.

For the same reason, CCA struggled to keep its systemic critique in focus. A slanted media machine was surely part of this, but many in the camp itself leaned heavily on the idea of ‘carbon footprints’ and broader lifestyle imperatives. An in-house documentary of the 2007 camp gives fully half of its runtime to heart-meltingly sweet young white guys sharing their excitement about compost loos, grey water systems, recycled stoves, solar showers and other noughties novelties. 

The other half, incidentally, gives some glimpses of CCA’s utter heroism in the face of police violence unlike anything the post-2018 UK climate movement would recognise. This, along with the spy cops scandal, is surely part of what led to Camp for Climate Action’s surprise dissolution in 2011.

Same camp, different pitch.

In 2019, a few groups came together to form Climate Camp Scotland. One of them – Climate Action Scotland – had close associations with past camps (both in the form of Mainshill Solidarity Camp and Reclaim the Power – CCA’s less-heralded successor). Another key player was Extinction Rebellion Scotland, whose dramatic arrival had brought many people with no prior history of activism into a resurgent climate movement.

It might have been this vibrant heritage, the progress of movement-wide discussions about climate justice, or the complicated historical position of Scotland as both oppressor and oppressed – whatever the reason, CCS decided to do something different.

“We don’t just want to be a bunch of people from the central belt who turn up for a week, shout about climate then leave,” says Jess.

She explains that CCS is hoping to channel the traditional positives of climate camps: bringing activists together to forge relationships, prefigure different ways of being, and launch large-scale direct actions. But she underlines that all of this must be in service to the deeper mission of building solidarity with communities on the front line of extractivist systems.

Quan, another spokesperson, agrees: “What CCS does differently from many other climate camps is that relationship-building. It’s a fundamental part of our theory of change that the fossil fuel industry creates these sacrifice zones. People sometimes forget that we have these zones in the Global North. But these are some of the poorest areas in Scotland – and we need to work together with these communities.” 

Both speakers emphasise that this is slow and long-term work. Quan – involved in CCS’s outreach efforts – outlines that there are just a few main front line zones in Scotland. It’s CCS’s plan to offer close commitment to these few places, eschewing the temptation of novelty in favour of continuity.

One of these places is Torry, Aberdeen. This was the camp’s location for 2022, and everyone agrees it was a huge success. Quan tells Novara that CSS was “invited to that site by Friends of St Fittick’s Park” – a local grassroots group defending Torry’s last green space from fossil capital. Although the park’s future remains uncertain, the presence – and action – of hundreds of climate campers led to substantial and positive publicity for the defenders’ cause. There is, apparently, a lot of appetite from both groups for another CCS appearance.

Living within the glow.

Grangemouth, Falkirk – this year’s focus – is a more complicated prospect.

Ineos founder and CEO Jim Ratcliffe visits the Grangemouth gas terminal, September 2016. Russell Cheyne/Reuters

The case for CCS’s involvement is resounding, from both science and justice perspectives. The sprawling petrochemical complex receives about 30% of the UK’s crude oil, making it Scotland’s biggest source of CO2 emissions. The site also produces 60-70 billion plastic pellets per day (this output is implicated, unsurprisingly, in massive plastic pollution of the Firth of Forth).

In a surreal twist of carbon colonialism, much of the site’s overall intake is shipped in from fracking sites in Pennsylvania. Ineos, the main owner, is fighting a multi-year campaign against the Scottish government for the right to start fracking in Grangemouth itself.

The fracking situation is in stalemate, but generally Ineos succeeds in holding Holyrood to ransom, whether it’s snubbing just transition talks, waving away emissions targets with carbon capture fantasies, or – ironically – footing Scottish taxpayers with the massive bills involved in insulating the site from sea-level rise.

Ineos treats its workers with the same hostage dynamic, most brazenly in the Battle of Grangemouth, which saw workers hammered with sackings, strike-bans, pay-freezes and scrapped pensions – and more recently in pay-disputes prompting wildcat strikes.

All of this to the eye-watering enrichment of Ineos owner Jim Ratcliffe. Ratcliffe used to be the UK’s richest man, but now pays tax in Monaco, a move projected to save him £4bn – which could prove useful for expanding his collection of super-yachts or opposing climate policy. Meanwhile, Ineos is making a killing from the energy crisis.

All of which is just context for CCS’s main focus: those living in Grangemouth itself.

Norman Philip is one. He grew up in Grangemouth and he’s still there now; his father worked in the refinery (then owned by BP), as did his brother. Philip tells Novara Media how the community’s fortunes began to change in the noughties when the comparatively benign state-owned BP first turned private, and then turned into the much less scrupulous Ineos. He became active in discussions about the refinery’s impact on local life. He called meetings, ran walking tours, collected surveys, and worked on a pioneering documentary in which Grangemouth residents shared experiences with a community in Brazil (both groups facing the impacts of the fossil fuel industry).

He tells how frequent flaring incidents light up the sky and clog the air; how unexplained vibrations disturb people’s sleep. How the community was hollowed out as Ineos reduced and outsourced employment. How heavy industry continues to encroach on and encircle Grangemouth: the Syngenta pesticide plant opposite Ineos, the problems with HGVs queuing for Scotland’s biggest shipping terminal, the chokehold of motorway and logistical hubs, and the recent move to privatise Grangemouth’s main road. How Ineos’s recent acquisition of ‘freeport’ status augurs worse to come.

“People here used to have a stake in the refinery,” he explains. “When I was a kid and heard weird noises coming out at night, I knew that my dad was working there and looking out for us. And our dads all had shares in BP, had pensions with them; we were proud to come from Grangemouth. Now, there’s no relationship.”

Philip describes his past scepticism for climate activists who “think in terms of parts per million and forget about people”. Extinction Rebellion’s action at the refinery in 2020 found a mixed reception, he says. He’s more optimistic about CCS’s approach.

Both Philip and CCS themselves are frank about the challenges of building this community’s power. Quan says the group has “support from vicars, councillors, Friends of the Earth Falkirk” (of which Philip is a coordinator) and has contacts who used to work in the refinery, which led to recent success in the form of a meeting with trade union Unite (which has historically steered clear of climate groups). But there’s no big pre-existing campaign to work with like there was in Torry: this will be a slow start to a long process.

CCS is innovating, but it’s not alone: both XR UK and Ende Gelände have recently pivoted away from large-scale disruption towards similarly local-centric efforts. Some climate veterans in Hull are going even further. None of these initiatives is likely to receive much tabloid hype, of course. But this coming week in Grangemouth could mark a profound shift for the UK climate movement, both within Scotland and beyond.

Douglas Rogers is a writer and climate activist.

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