After receiving a first from Cambridge University in 2007, like many graduates Tamsin Omond was unsure about what she wanted to do next. As she explained in a recent lecture, she could have easily ended up with "a nice forty grand job" with a marketing consultancy in the City.
But rather than entering the corporate world, 24-year old Omond has become the media’s favourite environmental activist. She has also just become a published author with ‘Rush! The making of a climate activist’, an inspirational account of her time protesting man-made climate change.
Speaking to me in an east London bar recently, Omond explains that her conversion to climate activism was simply down to reading the climate science. "The first thing I read was a report that was forced on me by these climate activists I lived with after I finished my exams – peer-reviewed science, well-worked through arguments with well respected names like NASA scientist James Hansen", she says. "It really made clear how imminent climate change is, that it is already having an effect and the fact we are continuing to live our lives in a way that will only aggravate the problem."
Frustrated by media indifference and Government inaction, Omond joined the anti-aviation direct action group Plane Stupid, where she was arrested during her first action at Biggin Hill private airfield. More famously, she was also arrested when she occupied the roof of the Houses of Parliament in February 2008 to protest the expansion of Heathrow Airport.
"Once you know about climate change and it becomes a reality in your life, it definitely has a psychological impact", she says. "It’s the reason I’ve been able to work ceaselessly for two years with no holiday."
Continually looking for new and exciting ways to bring climate change to the attention of the general public, at just six weeks notice Omond and a small group of friends managed to organise and lead hundreds of people in a Climate Rush on Parliament on October 13 last year. The date is important – exactly 100 years before 60,000 Suffragettes had rushed Parliament in their campaign to gain votes for women. "Women have this kick ass historical past of the Suffragettes and they have this to look back to as the defining direct action movement that changed society", Omond notes in a forthcoming documentary on Climate Rush.
Despite all these achievements, Omond is incredibly modest and self-effacing in person, apologising on several occasional for rambling and not being eloquent. Admittedly, she does occasionally lose her train of thought, but more than makes up for it with her infectious enthusiasm, easy charm and seemingly endless optimism.
She doesn’t flinch from criticising the environmental movement. "I’d been involved in the environmental movement for a year before Climate Rush, and my main problem with it was that it seemed like a fringe movement that was not particularly engaging with the fact we have this large consumer culture that is the overriding culture." For Omond climate change is no longer a fringe issue, but a "universal issue that requires a universal response". Therefore, she is all about being inclusive, noting that "we won’t be able to change society unless we are relevant to those people going to Oxford Street on a Sunday or who have a job".
Setting up the group Climate Rush was a conscious attempt to challenge the "stereotypical picture of an activist", she says. Thus Climate Rush protests usually involve young women dressed as Suffragettes, taking part in fun, creative and non-aggressive actions. For example, in January this year they organised a dinner in the departures lounge at Heathrow to oppose the third runway, and last month they made headlines when they dumped a large pile of horse manure on Jeremy Clarkson’s driveway while posing with a banner that read ‘This is what you are landing us in’.
In many ways Omond’s brief dalliance with marketing after university makes perfect sense. Throughout the interview she litters her speech with proto-marketing speak and a level of smart, strategic, media-friendly thinking that would make her a star in any London ad agency. "I think it is really important that we engage with creating a public image", she says at one point. Later she refers to the positive response Climate Rush has so far received from the mainstream media. "While this honeymoon of coverage continues we should definitely try and take advantage of it and saturate the press." Spoken like a true Marketing Manager. The difference being, of course, is that rather than trying to make us consume more, Omond is attempting to raise awareness of the perils of runaway climate change.
Turning to the Government-level response to climate change, Omond doesn’t hold out much hope for a robust agreement at the Copenhagen climate summit in December, where delegates from 192 countries will attempt to establish a new global treaty on climate change. However, she argues "the good thing about Copenhagen is that it acts as a kind of focus point for campaigners around the world and it offers us the opportunity to talk to each other." For Omond its likely failure will create a mandate for protest and direct action that will mobilise thousands to the cause. "It’s like ‘if you won’t stop building coal-fired power stations, we will go and make sure they don’t work’. That kind of mandate only comes when the mainstream politics and decision making fail", she notes.
On December 5, Climate Rush will join ‘The Wave’, a march in London to pressure the Government ahead of Copenhagen which will end in Parliament Square. In the long-term Omond tells me the group plan to campaign around the next general election, by working with their 5,000 strong mailing list and local groups around the UK. She hopes "to create news stories about climate change in the local press and put pressure on local MPs to talk about climate change, so climate change will actually be part of the election debate." What can concerned individuals do? "It is really important to start talking to people about climate change", she replies. "Not to be that annoying person at a dinner party who keeps talking about how the world is burning, but to talk about the interesting things like why are the Government continuing to protect the aviation industry but not the Vestas wind farm factory?" She also says people should fly less. "I think we all need to take responsibility for the fact flying is the single worst thing you can do as an individual."
As the climate crisis becomes more acute and the gap between Government action and what actually needs to be done grows ever wider, Omond is surely right when she states "the world needs loads more activists." Intelligent, thoughtful and not afraid to be arrested, Omond is one such activist. As such she deserves the support of every person who is concerned about the planet’s welfare and the quality of life of future generations.
Rush! The making of a climate activist is published by Marion Boyars, priced £7.99. For more information on Climate Rush visit www.climaterush.co.uk