Hijacking at Stansted

Protests over the expansion of the UK airport are being turned into yet another pulpit for preaching about the evils of man-made global warming.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

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‘An Inuit in Essex’ might sound like the name of one of those daft culture-clash documentaries. But this is supposed to be serious political theatre. Campaigners against expanding the use of Stansted airport in Britain are bringing over Aqqaluk Lynge, president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, to support their case at the public inquiry that has just begun.

What relevance the experience of life in frozen Greenland has to a debate about jobs, airline passengers, noise and woodlands in semi-rural Essex might not be immediately apparent. But it is now obvious that, for the first time in the UK, a public inquiry concerning a local planning dispute is being turned into another morality play about man-made global warming.

The current Stansted airport expansion dispute does not concern a major new runway (that will come later), but measures to increase the use of the existing airport from 25million to 35million passengers a year. It started like other similar disputes: an argument about the likely impact on local communities and woodland versus the advantages for passengers and the local economy and job creation. The protesters who turned up on Wednesday, the first day of the inquiry, largely seemed to be a Barbour-wearing crowd of concerned Essex residents, who were also concerned to make clear to BBC reporters that they are ‘not like Swampy’, the raggedy-arsed anti-road protester of yore (1). (This didn’t stop media photographers pointing their lenses at the one hippyish self-styled Essex Earth Mother who was also protesting.)

There is always a strong element of narrow-minded Nimby-ism (Not In My Backyard) in such campaigns. The British Airport Authority’s figures show that, of the 14,000 complaints they received about noise at Stansted over the past year, no fewer than 9,100 were made by the same little group of 14 people.

So far, so run-of-the-mill. Although I am a firm supporter of the benefits of air travel, and not a natural fan of Nimby protests, it is clear that every demand for airport expansion need not be automatically agreed. (And I like walking in woodlands, too.) The objections should be judged on their merits. It is striking in this case that the opponents of the expansion include the airlines Ryanair, easyJet and British Airways! (They, of course, oppose the expansion for business reasons.) But what I seriously object to is seeing these planning issues hijacked as another media platform/pulpit for those preaching the evils of man-made global warming.

According to reports, the Inuit visitor to Essex is going to tell the inquiry that global warming, partly caused by aircraft emissions, has already damaged the polar environment where he lives, and that worse is to come if we don’t curtail flying. His statement, already quoted in the press, will argue that ‘you may say that the expansion of London Stansted airport will play only a small part in increasing climate change, but everyone can say that about almost everything they do. It is an excuse for doing nothing.’

Well, Mr Lynge, the thing is that most things we are being told to do – from putting our food waste in a household slop bucket to turning off the TV at night – will not make a substantial difference to anything. And more importantly, it is the crusade against man-made global warming that is really becoming the biggest ‘excuse for doing nothing’ today.

Want to expand an airport to accommodate the millions of Britons who wish to fly? Sorry – think of the global warming. Want to build a new road to relieve congestion? No way – global warming. Like to construct new power stations to keep Britain supplied with energy for the twenty-first century? Put that light out – what about the global warming? Or trying to build a desalination plant on the Thames to relieve London’s future water shortages, which many claim will be an effect of climate change? Mayor Ken Livingstone will veto it, because the carbon emitted in building it could add to, er, global warming.

On every front, the arguments about man-made global warming are becoming a pretext for demanding that we slow down, stop, freeze, or even go backwards. It seems as if the conservative, anti-experimentation lobby no longer need the doom-predicting speculative ‘what-if?’ scenarios of the Precautionary Principle. They can simply wheel on the spectre of global warming to declare that man-made devastation is now a matter of fact, not speculation, with no disputes allowed – either about the causes of climate change or, more importantly, the accepted ‘solutions’.

It seems hard to see how anybody could be sure of ‘the truth about climate change’ today, given the highly-politicised nature of this ostensibly scientific discussion. But we surely can say with some certainty that there is no necessary progression from the evidence presented of man-made global warming to the sort of petty authoritarian and austerity responses now being demanded, from scrambling around in a compost heap to ending cheap flights to Europe. There is no example in history of humanity solving the problems it faced through standing still, downscaling or turning the clock, and the meter, backwards. The more development we have, the better equipped we are to cope.

In any case, as has previously been pointed out by my colleagues on spiked, air travel is far from being the biggest cause of carbon emissions, even within the transport sector never mind the wider economy (see ‘Cheap flights should be a cause of national rejoicing’, by Brendan O’Neill). So why is it being singled out for so much hostile attention by campaigners who do not have any airport expansion proposal in the backyard?

One obvious reason is that the air travel industry flies in the face of so many of the eco-prejudices of an age that seems to have lost faith in society’s achievements. Flight is an example of human exceptionalism in its starkest form, a man-made wonder that demonstrates how ingenuity and boldness has solved the most apparently immovable problems. It is a testament to the profoundly miserabilist spirit of the age that such a wonder must now be problematised as one of the biggest issues on Earth.

Cheap flights from Stansted, and the people who enjoy them, are also a symbol of the mass consumerism and pleasures so despised by supposedly leftish intellectuals and activists. Though they claim to speak for ‘the people’, they exhibit contempt for the millions of those people who see nothing wrong in going away on holiday for a quick burst of hedonism.

The self-righteous snobbery towards the customers of easyJet and Ryanair is never far below the surface of these anti-flying/airport crusades. The notion of people flying away for hen or stag weekends to Prague or Latvia seems particularly appalling to the stay-at-home neo-puritans. As a spokeswoman for the Stop Stansted Expansion campaign put it in March: ‘It’s as if the government has concluded that cheap stag nights in Prague take priority over everything else, including the health of the planet for future generations.’ Yes, of course, that must be precisely what the Cabinet decided. What other possible reason could there be for letting more people go abroad and get drunk?

The anti-flying crusaders who leech off local feeling about airports embody the latent misanthropic self-righteousness of the environmental movement at its worst. One high-profile campaign of adultescent zealots cannot disguise its disgust at the idiot public, even calling itself ‘Plane Stupid’ – slogan ‘We are all plane stupid’ (by which of course they mean us, not them). These people act as if they are the saved, preaching to sinners. See their near-religious incantations about obeying the commandments of ‘the science’, as if a prediction of climate change somehow dictated that they must stop more people taking the road to Stansted; or the actual religiosity of them invading airport runways behind a Baptist preacher who then leads them in prayer, as if they were exorcising the demons of economy air travel (2).

Perhaps many of the self-consciously respectable protesters outside the Stansted inquiry this week do not share the plane-bashing zealotry. But the climate change arguments against expanding Stansted are not confined to the fringe. They have been endorsed by a heavyweight alliance including local councils and the National Trust. The way in which climate change has now become the headline issue in the campaign confirms that everybody understands how to win moral support for a cause these days. Whatever the issue, it seems you can gain the moral high ground by championing the cause of lower carbon emissions. In the process, however, the arguments over the expansion of one airport get clouded over with a lot of hot air as the anti-global warming flying circus comes to town.

Whether or not this particular planned expansion of Stansted is the right way ahead, the important thing is that we need to move forwards rather than trying to fly backwards. Talking about polar icecaps should not give anybody a licence to try to freeze progress. Whatever the one-eyed zealots may believe, not everything that emits more carbon is evil. And the fate of trees and flowers in Essex is not a matter of life or death for the planet. So let’s cut the emissions of climate hysteria, buy our Inuit friend a (plane?) ticket home, and talk about the issues at hand. Otherwise the arguments about expanding Stansted are at risk of being hijacked by those who would bring air travel and economic development to a standstill.

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill asked Who’s afraid of Ryanair? and described the Climate Change Chaos demo as A march of middle-class miserablists. Peter Smith argued that when it comes to Air travel: the skies the limits. James Woudhuysen discussed The folly of carbon swipe cards. Or you can read more at: spiked issue Environment.

(1) Eco-warriors in Barbours and brogues, BBC News, 30 May 2007

(2) See the Plane Stupid website

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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