LONDON – Climate activists from Extinction Rebellion have drawn up plans to use drones to shut London’s Heathrow Airport this summer in a campaign to stop the construction of a third runway at Europe’s busiest airport, the group said.
The internal proposal, seen by Reuters, emerged against a backdrop of renewed campaigning by environmental groups who argue that expanding Heathrow would be incompatible with Britain’s targets to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
“On June 18, we plan to carry out nonviolent direct action to ensure Heathrow Authorities close the airport for the day, to create a ‘pause’ in recognition of the genocidal impact of high carbon activities, such as flying, upon the natural world,” Extinction Rebellion said in a statement late on Thursday.
“This is not about targeting the public, but holding the Government to their duty to take leadership on the climate and ecological emergency,” the group said.
Heathrow Airport said the use of drones would be a “reckless action.”
“We agree with the need to act on climate change, but that requires us to work together constructively — not commit serious criminal offenses just as hardworking people prepare to spend a well-earned holiday with their family and friends,” an airport spokesman said in a statement on Friday.
The deployment of drones would mark a significant escalation by Extinction Rebellion, which mobilized thousands of people in a peaceful civil disobedience campaign that brought parts of central London to a standstill for 11 days in April.
The British Parliament declared a symbolic “climate emergency” in response to the protests, raising hopes among campaign groups that the government will cancel the third runway as part of more ambitious climate commitments.
British security forces have been on alert since December, when Gatwick Airport outside London was forced to cancel flights over several days due to drones near the perimeter. Extinction Rebellion was not involved in that incident, senior members of the movement said at the time.
In the internal proposal written by volunteers, activists suggested using drones to force authorities to ground flights at Heathrow Airport while other protesters held picnics. The activists said they would avoid any risk to aircraft by informing the airport of their plans in advance.
If the government does not cede to their demands after disruption on June 18, the activists proposed shutting the airport for the first two weeks in July.
Extinction Rebellion’s commitment to nonviolent civil disobedience to press for faster cuts in greenhouse gas emissions has spurred offshoots in more than a dozen countries and pushed climate change up the political agenda.
Nevertheless, the planned Heathrow action has divided opinion within the movement. Some volunteers believe that governments will only treat the climate crisis with sufficient urgency if faced with large-scale disruption, including to transport networks such as underground railways and airports.
Others fear that disrupting air travel may alienate large numbers of people who might otherwise have been sympathetic to the movement’s demands at a time when scientists are sounding increasingly urgent alarms about the risk of climate breakdown.
As a self-organizing, highly decentralized movement, Extinction Rebellion volunteers have a lot of autonomy, making it hard to predict whether the drone proposal will win enough support to proceed.
Parliament backed the plan to build an $18 billion third runway last year. Heathrow Airport is owned by Ferrovial, Qatar Investment Authority and China Investment Corporation, among others.