A war is being waged on British soil between Big Energy and a grassroots campaign group known as No Dash for Gas.
Earlier this week French corporation EDF Energy made the bold, slightly reckless decision to sue the 21 activists from No Dash for Gas who occupied West Burton power station last year for the sum of £5million. It sounds like something out of an Austin Powers film. You know the sketch - 'We hold the world ransom for..... ONE BILLION DOLLARS'.. Except in the film Doctor Evil gave figures that were too low rather than too high, to general amusement.
Five million pounds is an astounding claim, and what EDF are attempting to hold to ransom is the British freedom to protest. But the immense figure is going to be difficult for them to prove, since it was confirmed in court that no damage was done to the site, as a gap in a fence allowed the protesters easy access to the power station. In taking this action, clearly EDF feel that they have nothing to lose.
It seems that they are wrong.
After announcing in March 2012 that new rules would block coal-fired power stations from being built, but allow gas power until 2045, the coalition government faced accusations of a 'dash for gas'. Hence No Dash for Gas's message to the government and Big Energy: invest in renewable energies now, rather than fossil fuels which are unsustainable and fuelling man-made climate change.
If EDF continue to build new gas-fired stations, they will still be around in 2040, but the only way the UK can achieve its Climate Change Act commitments of an 80% CO2 reduction by 2050 is to completely decarbonise its electricity supply by 2030. Carbon Capture and Storage will not suffice to meet these demands and will require retrofitting existing power stations with CSS - an expensive proposition likely to be paid for by the UK taxpayer. Any power station that is built with CCS will also require 25% more gas to generate the electricity, meaning further hiked up energy tariffs.
Does that sound sustainable to you?
Now back to the war. EDF's proposed punishment threatens protesters with having to leave their homes, declare themselves bankrupt, and pay chunks of their salaries to the corporate giant for the rest of their lives. It sounds to me like they're terrified of what NDFG have successfully exposed for the world to see: the consequences of their dash for gas, their gambling of our planet's future, and the fact that sooner or later this will have to stop.
Cast your mind back to 2003. Millions of us marched to protest the Iraq war in the UK and around the world, but the invasion went ahead regardless. A decade later, many of us have realised our folly in thinking that marches change anything the government decides, and those of us who haven't sunk into apathy have fostered the rise in direct action in Britain, which has been characterised by movements such as Occupy, which aims to represent true democracy by operating on the basis of consensus decision-making.
Some might say that now your voice can only be heard if you climb up a gas power chimney with a placard demanding investment in wind power instead.
The principle at stake here is the future of our planet. The future of our climate, and the future of the freedom to protest and voice dissent in Britain. Once, these activists were the Suffragettes, imprisoned and force-fed for refusing to give up their fight for the right to vote because they were women. Rosa Parks committed an act of civil disobedience when she refused to accept that her needs came second because of the colour of her skin, which led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the spark that lit the fire of the civil rights movement.
Now 21 activists are being sued for defending the climate.
Now there is a fight for the right to protest at all.
Whatever your politics, you owe your weekends and holidays to the history of dissent in this country; to unions, organised strikes and walk-outs. If EDF win this case, it could set a precedent big and ugly enough to deter people from taking action in future. And let's not forget that this is their aim. If we let them take our right to free protest, our right to dissent, we spit upon everything the miners fought for, the Road Protests; the freedom to take action that underpins British tradition. EDF's move here is not a single strike in the dark, but a carefully executed chess move. In 2010 energy giant E.ON repeatedly lobbied Ed Miliband when he was energy secretary for tougher sentences against climate protesters and threatened to pull out of investment in Britain unless activists were stiffly sentenced.
This shows just how afraid of direct action the one per cent is.
Danny Chivers, environmental author and one of the 21 No Dashers, says that EDF has made a gross error in judgement and is out of touch with public opinion. "No-one likes a bully, and so it's not surprising that their Facebook page and twitter account have been swamped with messages of support for us. One of us was interviewed on Radio 2, and the subsequent phone-in was almost unanimously in our favour. We've even heard that people are planning anti-EDF protests in support of us, which is of course exactly the opposite effect to the one the company intended".
The corporation clearly hadn't anticipated the backlash they would encounter via social media. Their online presence has been inundated with messages of support for No Dash for Gas. Many are choosing to boycott the corporation and switching to Green Energy instead. Letters have been written to the Guardian newspaper by various campaigns including Greenpeace. A petition is calling on EDF to drop the charges. An event in London is aiming to storm the EDF conference in May, which is aptly named 'Let's Talk Power'. EDF do hold the power, but only in the dirty energy sector. They are out of their depth now because they are up against a type of energy that can't be bought or sold. It's called people power and it's going to prevail.
By climbing those chimneys and risking bankruptcy, the No Dash protesters acted for our children and our grandchildren who will have to deal with the impacts of climate change. They stood for all of us.
Now it's time to stand with them.