Dan Box blog: listening to the radicals

Dan Box makes a detour to the G20 climate protests in London, but leaves disappointed. Later, a lecture by Nicholas Stern, author of the Stern review, lifts his spirits.

A rollercoaster ride today, and not the one I was expecting. I was down in London (from Shropshire. You wake up to the sound of birdsong then it's three hours by train to the roar of the traffic) to meet the BBC; in just over 10 days now I leave for the Carteret Islands, whose people are being evacuated ahead of rising sea levels, and the Beeb wanted me to practice with the radio equipment I will be taking with me.

I thought I'd take the opportunity to visit the G20 climate protests in the City and spend the evening at a lecture given by Nicholas Stern - author of the Stern Review on the economics of climate change. Two contrasting views, I thought, one radical and urgent, the other conservative and dry. But which was which? The result wasn't what I expected.

First to the protests. My mother-in-law had warned me not to go to the G20, for fear of anarchists. That she also called her two daughters in London asking them to stay away too is a measure of how far short reality fell below expectation. At the 'Climate Camp' there were perhaps 100 tents, full of all the usual suspects seen at a decade of similar demonstrations: a drum circle, cake stall, a bicycle-powered sound system, a few beers and a picnic lunch over The Guardian. The message, like those at previous demonstrations, was confused - 'Justice, Jobs, Climate', 'Eat the bankers' - and united only by its pessimism.

'What do you guys hope to get out of this?' I asked one.
'Not a lot really.' Right.
'This is a very British protest,' said another. 'Get together, stand there, do nothing.'

And that, I think, was the problem. The voice of protest, as heard at the G20, has become conservative; repeating the same old warnings about climate change and global capitalism, but offering little in the way of new ideas or solutions to those threats. I do respect those who travelled from Newcastle, Manchester and Glasgow to take part for their commitment, but I still left feeling depressed.

The lecture theatre at the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), in contrast, is solid, sober and proud, like the Society itself. Hardly the place for radicalism, I thought. But I was wrong.

Stern was there to launch his book Blueprint for a Safer Planet, which, like him, looks reassuringly slim, neat and modest. In it, he outlines the scale of the problem and six steps by which the world can solve it. What he is asking for is radical, deeply so; no less than an almost total re-engineering of world industry, starting now. But where others see economic crisis and reluctance on the part of developing countries to commit, he sees opportunity and determination. Stern, unlike those outside at the protest, has answers, not just questions. But what really lifts the weight of the world from your shoulders is hearing all this from a man who actually understands how those few people who really run our world think - in economics - and who obviously is listened to by those people as a result.

'We know the necessary scale of action, we know where we have to act and we know the necessary economic policy that will support that action,' he said. 'We don't know everything...but we see a clear course of action and we will learn a hell of a lot along the way.' Frankly, it was great to see such a radical wearing a suit. I leave London feeling much more optimistic than I have for a long time.

As their island homes are swallowed by rising sea levels, the people of the Carteret Islands are being forced to leave in what will become the world’s first official climate change evacuation. Dan Box will be traveling to the islands in April and will be blogging live on his journey at www.journeytothesinkinglands.wordpress.com

The trip is made possible thanks to the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) Journey of a Lifetime Award

This article first appeared in the Ecologist April 2009

More from this author