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On 19 November, activists blockaded one of the key access roads to Heathrow airport with a banner saying ‘Climate Change is A Racist Crisis’. More groups had interventions planned but the police foiled their attempts. 15 arrests took place throughout the day. 100s also took part in a nearby demonstration despite heavy police presence. This action was coordinated by Rising Up! and comes a few weeks after Theresa May gave the green light to the building of a third runway at Heathrow.
For the climate and everyone who doesn’t belong to the global political elite, May’s decision doesn’t make sense. Thousands will see their home demolished to make way for the new runway. Only 15% are responsible for 70% of UK’s international flights – so airport expansion doesn’t really benefit the average person who goes on holiday once or twice a year. Plus, a large proportion of Heathrow flights are short haul, whose routes could be better serviced by improved rail infrastructure. More crucially, flying is the most emissions-intensive form of transport and the fastest growing cause of climate change. It is not possible for the UK government to expand airports and meet existing commitments on climate action.
The subtext of this decision is loud and clear: the government’s doesn’t care either about the local community, who are fiercely opposed to the expansion, or about the vast majority of the world’s population, for whom climate change is truly an existential threat.
Since the ‘Heathrow 13’s’ July 2015 occupation there has been a re-emergence of anti-aviation actions in the UK with the analysis of the causes and impacts of climate change evolving in important ways. A spokesperson from Rising Up! stated:
“We are living amidst a climate genocide, and must now come to terms with what we must do – in our families, our communities – as human beings. This is climate colonialism, and is allowed to happen because it is black and brown people succumbing to drought in Sub-Saharan Africa. Airport expansion in the UK is another way in which multinational companies, enabled by our government, are knowingly engaging in this genocide by not taking the necessary steps to avert the crisis.”
This recent action builds on the Black Lives Matter UK’s anti-aviation blockades in August and September 2016, which successfully forced the issue of racism into the media discourse on climate change. City Airport, which got the go ahead for expansion in July 2016, was an apt target because it is mainly the elite that fly from this airport (average annual salary of a passenger is £114,000) but it is the predominately black and brown working class local community (whose average salary is less than £20,000) that bears the brunt of impacts through high levels of noise and local air pollution.
The racism of airport expansion in the UK, however, is not confined to local environmental problems. Global South countries, where majority of the world’s non white population lives, are most vulnerable to extreme weather events and long term climatic changes. 7 of the top 10 countries affected by the climate crisis are in Sub-Saharan Africa. Worse, the already devastating impacts of environmental changes are further exacerbated by the legacies of colonialism and the continued exploitative workings of colonialism’s grandchild – neoliberalism.
European colonialism controlled every part of political, economic, social and cultural life while it extracted human and natural resources in the Global South for the economic benefit of Global North elite classes. The racism that was at the heart of colonialism continues to be reproduced under the neoliberal global economic system through unfair trade deals and unjust global financial institutions. These structures have enabled wealthy countries and multinational corporations to take without impunity and leave behind a trail of destruction, dispossession, and displacement. It is estimated that about 15 million people in Bangladesh alone, a country with extreme vulnerability to rising sea levels and a long legacy of colonial exploitation, could be on the move by 2050 because of climate change. This will be the worst migration in human history.
Reclaim the Power led #StayGrounded anti-aviation actions in October 2016, which included a critical mass bike ride to Harmondsworth Detention Centre, and sought to articulate the very important connection between the struggle for climate justice and the struggle for no borders. War is raging along Europe’s borders, many of which are directly or indirectly linked to ensuring our access to fossil fuels. Instead of demonising and scapegoating migrants and refugees or militarising our borders, a more humane response by the UK government would be a crackdown on the big polluters, like airports, whose actions are worsening the impacts of climate change and forcing people to flee in the first place.Our movements need to make more central the voices of women, black, brown, working class folk, and indigenous and frontline communities
Stopping airport expansion alone won’t solve climate change or bring about justice. But recognising how our various struggles are interconnected is really important if we want to build an effective mass civil disobedience movement that resists not just airport expansion, and the worst impacts of climate change, but also the myriad ways in which the political elite oppress and exploit us.
Much more needs to be done, of course. We need our organising, both on a day-to-day interpersonal level and on an action-by-action level, to deeply reflect this growing interconnected consciousness. Our movements need to make more central the voices of women, black, brown, working class folk, and indigenous and frontline communities – what this looks like will differ from action to action because privilege impacts the extent to which different folk can participate in civil disobedience. Ultimately, mass action, anti-aviation or otherwise, will only be transformative if it is built on a politics of liberation and reparative justice. In the era of Trump, Brexit and growing fascism, such a politics feels even more urgent and necessary. So it is heartening and a thing to be celebrated that the anti-aviation campaigns are evolving in this direction.