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Interview: Danielle Paffard, climate-change campaigner

12 October 2018

‘If it’s wrong to wreck the climate, then it’s wrong to profit from the wreckage’

We made this problem. We have a moral obligation to try and fix it. The only fights that you definitely can’t win are the ones you don’t show up for.

Right now I’m on a cargo ship bound for West Africa, so my daily life involves quite a lot of staring out to sea and thinking about the insanity of the global shipping industry. And the permanent smiles of the Filipino crew despite their difficult working conditions.

I entered the “real world” post-university, and was politically awoken into the mind-curdling leadership- and reality-vacuum that was the 2009 UN Climate Talks in Copenhagen. If everyone knew the world was burning and the entirety of humanity was at stake, why were none of the people with power doing anything about it? Cue the night terror and debilitating panic that most people who think about climate change go through, and a militant climate campaigner is born.

Having started out in student energy saving with Student Switch Off, I quickly got inspired by the narrative that Climate Camp was championing at the time: who’s paying for this? How do we go upstream and cut off the money to this rubbish? How do we take on big banks and big finance?

Some friends and I set up Move Your Money. I worked on the Robin Hood Tax campaign with Oxfam, and did a stint at my local credit union. From there, I moved briefly to the Centre of Alternative Technology to help roll out the amazing Zero Carbon Britain report — yes, we can get net zero with the technology we have today. It’s a great piece of work, and we cracked out a summary for those not up for the full 300 pages.

From there, I started working with 350.org, whose commitment to grassroots climate organising gave me space to participate really deeply in some of these movements, as well as supporting other people to get involved, and a nice fusion of different interests.

The most powerful campaigning I’ve been involved in has always been grassroots. It’s been foundational to my self-understanding and my capacity to make change, and sustains my hope in humanity and human creativity. Climate Camp, Liberate Tate, Plane Stupid, Reclaim the Power, UK Uncut, and basically the entire divestment and anti-anti-fracking movement — all driven by inspiring, dedicated folks not afraid to speak truth to power. And doing so unpaid, often in their spare time.

For the last four years, through my role at 350.org, I’ve been heavily involved in the amazing fossil-fuel divestment movement. Divestment gets at fundamental power politics at the centre of the climate crisis, by naming the fossil-fuel industry and its mighty wealth and political access as the primary blocker of meaningful action on climate. The divestment movement works to undermine the social and political licence of the industry, to erode its power, and make space for change.
If it’s wrong to wreck the climate, then it’s wrong to profit from the wreckage. The divestment movement pushes institutions to publicly commit to stop investing in the fossil-fuel industry — to pick a side, cut their ties with the industry, and vote for action.

The movement started on university campuses in the US and quickly went global, and now 988 organisations worth $7.17 trillion have made divestment commitments — from the British Medical Association to the World Council of Churches to the Rockefellers to Ireland.

I wish the Church of England was in this list. But despite strong pushes from vocal members like the Bishop of Oxford, what I can only honestly, brutally describe as a moral urgency failing means the Church is still in polite conversation with Exxon. . .

The movement has been so successful because it’s a political analysis that goes far beyond recycling and turning your lights off, and talks about power. It’s a simple message: if you don’t like it don’t pay for it. It’s backed up by increasingly powerful financial arguments that fossil-fuel investments are bad ones. Most importantly, it’s grassroots and decentralised, so any organisation anywhere can act. And as a tactic, it has worked before.

I’ve also been very involved with grassroots campaigning against the fracking industry. Reclaim the Power is a national direct-action network, working particularly closely with the incredible anti-fracking community in Lancashire. The strength and dedication of these folks on the frontline is awe-inspiring. They’ve kept the fracking industry at bay for seven years, raising questions about the fundamental viability of the industry, and forcing the national government to bring in ever more draconian measures to push it through.

Choking off the money and influence of fossil-fuel industries remain a key battleground. We may win the fight here, but while London-based financial institutions are funding new projects around the world we’ve still got our work cut out.

The next few years will also be crucial for how we actually make the rubber hit the road on both emissions reductions and the transformative change that rising to the challenge of climate requires. Transforming how we live, travel, get our energy, and feed ourselves will impact all of us. This has huge potential to change our lives for the better, done right. Fighting fuel poverty with mass home insulating and community or public ownership of our energy would return benefits to the community, and give people more green spaces and public transport, healthier lives, and less air pollution.

This crucial moment of change is really fascinating, and something I’d love to work on next. High-level commitments for 100-per-cent renewables — renewable everything, not just energy — by 2050 have been made by a huge number of local authorities, through the UK 100 commitment. Now we need the people-power behind it to make sure action starts happening.

Yes, we absolutely need disruption and civil disobedience to achieve this. Nothing has shown this more clearly than fracking, where even official local decision-making is overturned by national government. Lancashire County Council voted against fracking at Preston New Road after a huge public campaign, only to be overridden by national government. This year, we’ve celebrated 100 years of women getting the vote, and remembered the prominent role of the suffragettes in this struggle.

One thing that the divestment movement has done really well is highlighting just how calculating and manipulative the fossil-fuel industry has been in protecting its interests and preventing meaningful action — from lobbying against pro-renewable legislation, to funding politicians and high-profile climate denialists, to burying their own climate science, and funding public misinformation campaigns, and the close access they get to politicians and the Civil Service through secondments. Look at the chilling leaked documents, where Shell outlines its plans to fund the arts to seed the “good-guy” image and dissipate the inevitable public rage when climate impacts start to hit. I wish I was making it up. It goes a long way to explain why progress hasn’t been made, and what we can do to counter that impact.

Also, for a long time climate has been seen as a “green” issue,
to be solved through self-flagellating, making sacrifices, and knitting yoghurt, rather than full-scale restructuring of the economy to rebalance power and money and improve the lives of ordinary people.

Individual action is necessary and essential, but not sufficient. We need far-reaching structural changes that will enable us to change our lives and lifestyles in a fundamental way, rather than being an opt-in for those with money or the headspace. Having said that, our behaviours should align with our morals, and undermining capitalism — because that’s the real end goal here, right? — does need us to engage with the world, stuff, nature, and community differently.

I’m your classic over-educated, middle-class white girl, I’m afraid. What makes me angry is all of us who forget how lucky we are. I don’t like breaking rules, or getting in trouble, and I’m not particularly brave. Sometimes action is necessary, but it takes a lot of courage. And I recognise the privilege I have to take that decision.

I very nearly went to prison for an action against the third runway as part of the Heathrow 13 a few years ago. I had my bags packed and my out-of-office phone on, and everything. That was a pretty intense and terrifying time, although the love and support I received also made it one of my most life-affirming moments. People I hadn’t seen for 15 years, people I’d never met at all, friends and family, all came and stood outside that court in the freezing cold for hours or days, and supported in other ways. In the end, my sentence was suspended, and I spent every Thursday for a year chipping paint off a fence at a local park, so I’m thinking a lot today about my friends spending their first week in prison right now. The Frack Free 4 have just been sentenced to 16 months for stopping a convoy of lorries entering a fracking site in Lancashire. Please send your support if you can. It will mean a lot.

Committing to campaign on climate change at all takes courage: opening yourself up to the enormity of it each day, and the consequences of failing. My colleague and comrades on the frontlines — their courage and determination always blows me away.

I’d choose to be locked in a church with Assata Shakur for being a bad ass. Or the Church Commissioners to tell them to hurry up and divest.

Danni Paffard was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. 

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