Yesterday, Sep. 10, 2008 a UK court acquitted six defendants from Greenpeace of all charges for their actions on Oct. 8, 2007, when they scaled a smokestack at the Kingsnorth coal-fired power station and attempted to shut it down. The defendants, accused of doing £30,000 in damage to the smokestack by painting “Gordon Bin It” on its side, did not deny the damage but relied instead for their defense on the principle of lawful excuse. (For more on “lawful excuse” see here.)
In essence they argued that the plant was doing damage to other property through its greenhouse gas emissions on such a scale as to justify their damaging it.
The ten-day trial concerned actions by Greenpeace activists to shut down the Kingsnorth Power Plant located on the Medway Estuary in Kent, in southeast England, which is owned by the Germany firm EON. The plan is one of the 30 worst for greenhouse gas emissions in Europe, Overall the UK has ten plants on that list. Additionally EON had announced plans, which the Brown government had not opposed, to build a new coal-fired power plant next door to the existing one.
Six of the activists were arrested and went on trial September 1. (You can read the full Greenpeace blog of the trial here.)Interestingly, the prosecution made no efforts to deny the reality of Climaticide. Instead they argued that the defendants had gone beyond mere civil disobedience by causing £30,000 in damages to the plant.
The defense responded that the damages caused by the plant were far greater than any that they, the defendants caused, and thus were justified under the concept of lawful excuse, explained above. They also argued that the government’s own declarations on global warming showed that it was well aware of the magnitude and severity of the problems, but that owing to a lack of political courage it had failed to act aggressively enough in confronting the challenge.
To bolster their case the defense put on testimony from the world’s leading climate scientist, Dr. James Hansen of NASA’s GISS. You can read Dr. Hansen’s cogent and illuminating testimony in full here (PDF). I would encourage you to read his entire testimony. Every time he speaks Dr. Hansen has more data and presents it more clearly and forcefully.
Greenpeace blogger bex summarized some of Hansen’s more salient points.
* Out of every country on earth, the UK bears the most responsibility for historical CO2 emissions in the atmosphere per person (followed by the US, then Germany).
* We’ve already passed a safe proportion of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and we need to roll it back. It can still be done but only if we get coal out of the system as quickly as possible – by putting a moratorium on all new plants without carbon capture and storage and phasing out old ones.
* If we carry on with business as usual, we’ll cause the extinction of one million species. Proportionately, several hundred of these species extinctions could be associated directly with Kingsnorth power station.
* He agreed with Al Gore’s statement: “I can’t understand why there aren’t rings of young people blocking bulldozers and preventing them from constructing coal-fired power stations”. [emphasis added-JR]
* Somebody – the leader of the UK, Germany or the US – needs to “step up”, take leadership and announce a moratorium on new coal plants.
* The atmosphere currently contains around 385 parts per million (ppm) of CO2, rising by 2ppm per year. Most targets to stop climate change suggest a target of 450ppm, and a two degree rise in temperature as safe upper limits. To meet those targets will require our world to change dramatically.
* But the safe level is no more than 350ppm – and may be less. And a rise of two degrees is “a recipe for global disaster and not salvation”. The last time the earth was more than two degrees warmer than it is now, there was a 25 metre sea level rise.
* “The simple but shocking truth is we have gone too far. We place our planetary system, inhabitants and future generations in grave peril… If we are to preserve the planet that civilisation has grown on, we have to go back.”
* “Humans are now in charge of atmospheric CO2 and the global climate… It’s up to those of us alive today to take the bold steps needed.”
* If we carry on as we are at the moment, the Greenland ice sheets will melt, leading to a sea level rise of at least two metres this century. Hundreds of millions of people will be come refugees. There will be mass species extinction and ecosystem collapse.
* If the ice in the (vulnerable) West Antarctic ice sheet melts, the sea levels would rise by around six metres.
* The complete loss of Arctic sea ice in the summer is now inevitable. The impacts on China, Kent, Bangladesh and the polar regions are enormous.
“Climate change affects my community, the Inuit people, by affecting their environment, which we see is more polluted due to increased shipping, the kind and numbers of species that they hunt, the house and camp constructions that they have to build on melting and unpredictable soils, the unpredictable weather… the sliding of houses into the sea… the reduction of habitats for polar bears and other species, and the introduction of new pest species.”
At the conclusion of the testimony, the Judge summed up for the jury as follows before sending them out to deliberate:
The main thrust of his summing up was that “it was the science on the one hand and the lack of [government] action” on the other that gave these defendants the impetus to act.
The judge reminded the jurors that both Professor Hansen and Dr Meaden said that the carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere – about half of which has historically come from coal – is having an “irreversible and immediate effect on the climate”. He reminded them that, if the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere reaches 450 parts per million, “we are effectively lost”. One of the main reasons for the rate of increase of emissions, said the judge, is that we’re continuing and returning to the use of coal plants, with their inefficiencies.
The bottom line from both experts, he said, was that every tonne of CO2 counts.
The nine-person jury deliberated for two day before finding the defendents innocent on all charges by reason of “lawful excuse”.
I do not think the significance of this case can be underestimated. For the first time in the United Kingdom a court has ruled that the damage from even one days emissions of greenhouse gases is so severe that protests are legally justified in causing damage to coal-fired power plants in order to close them down. The ruling does not justify any sort of damage whatsoever, so it is not carte blanche for all attacks on emissions. The ruling would surely have been different if the protesters had damaged someone’s SUV, for example. What it does do, in effect, is say that if government leaders are not going to live up to their rhetoric, concerned citizens have the rights to take actions into their own hands, including inflicting some property damage, in order to shut down coal-fired power plants. This is very good news indeed.
Do any of you lawyers out there know if there is any sort of legal precedent that might be used similarly in the US?