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From the outside, the sight of two thousand or so people clad all in black descending upon Hove Lawns must have seemed a touch strange, like a suicide cult just waiting for the sign. Certainly it was cold enough for a few deaths, with hands so frozen that iPhones no longer registered any touch. The only other people on the seafront were star-jumping ceaselessly, masochists in fluorescent shorts.

It’s ironic that an event aiming to raise awareness of climate change should be held on the most chilling November day in recent memory. More so that pictures of last week’s snowfall were sharing news pages with Met Office predictions that 2011 could be the warmest year on record. Amongst a backdrop of ongoing student protests and upcoming Coalition cuts, it’s unlikely that the Climate Change Conference currently taking place in Cancun will garner much in the way of prominent column inches, but organisations such as 350.org and 10:10 are keen to keep environmental issues firmly on the agenda.

The plan was to recreate the cover design from Thom Yorke’s 2005 album The Eraser, a striking impression of King Canute, arm outstretched towards the sea. “We see it as a metaphor for what the leaders are doing at the moment, coming together once a year, talking about the issues, making lots of empty promises and failing to hold back the tide,” said Kate Shayler, 350.org’s spokesperson for the event. “When you get people together it really strengthens the movement, and gets people excited. This kind of event can really spur people on.”

That much is certainly true. Despite over two hours of standing pretty much inanimate in preparation for around a minute’s worth of airborne photography, the atmosphere remained remarkably buoyant. Stewards had been briefed in dealing with any violence – a ‘purple alert’ – but the closest thing to dissent is when a middle-aged man biked past muttering something derogatory about hippies. Nobody fled the design, even when it became apparent that the Radiohead frontman himself wasn’t going to be making an appearance (he had been due to turn up, apparently, but had pulled out twenty-four hours before): disappointing, certainly – Thom Yorke’s association with the event had been the primary marketing draw – but ultimately irrelevant in the face of the larger aim.

Of course, there’s always the question as to whether displays such as this can actually have any impact, beyond a brief media flutter and a few dozen photo albums on Flickr. Tom Chute, Project Manager for Brighton and Hove’s 10:10 Campaign believes so. “The whole point of this sort of event – and of all the other projects like this going on around the world – is to make the people in Cancun aware that there are thousands and thousands of people who want some sort of action on climate issues. We need a commitment from politicians that matches the commitment of the public.”

And the public commitment shown here was certainly considerable. As the plane made its final pass and Radiohead’s Optimistic drifted on the wind from a distorted iPod speaker, the stillness turned to purple, useless hands attempting to applaud. Minutes later King Canute was no more, his arrogance and the rising waves dispersed with nothing but orderly piles of blue and yellow ponchos to show that they were ever there. Which is surely the aim for the Cancun summit: an end to the denial, the inaction and the political maneuvering, and hopefully some sort of plan for those tides as well.

Christian Cottingham

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