On September 10 a British jury acquitted six Greenpeace protesters who were on trial for trying to shut down a coal-fired power station on the grounds that they were trying to stop global warming.
Last year, the protesters climbed the chimneystack of the Kingsnorth
power station, in Kent, to paint "Gordon, bin it" (as in, "bin coal") on
the side, but were arrested before they could complete the task. They
were charged with causing criminal damage equivalent to around $80,000 –
the costs cleaning the 200 metre stack.
However, in a majority verdict, the jury in Maidstone Crown Court
found that the protesters had a "lawful excuse" for their acts, because
they were trying to protect property that would be damaged by climate
change, including parts of Kent at risk from sea level rise, parts of
Greenland, the Pacific island of Tuvalu, coastal areas of Bangladesh and
the city of New Orleans.
Under the "lawful excuse" defence, a lesser act which would otherwise
be illegal, can be justified on the grounds that it is preventing a
greater wrong to another – much like kicking down a door to put out a
fire in a house. The Greenpeace activists successfully argued that their
actions were "proportionate" to the risks of climate change, and
therefore not illegal.
The jury was told that the E.ON-owned power station – a target for
protests in this year's UK Climate Camp – emits around 20,000 tons of
carbon dioxide every year – the same amount as the 30 least-polluting
countries in the world.
The court heard from a wide variety of witnesses – including the
Conservative Party's environmental adviser, millionaire environmentalist
Zac Goldsmith, and an Inuit from Greenland. NASA's leading climate
expert, James Hansen, who warned the world of climate change over twenty
years ago, was flown in from the United States to testify to the
immediate danger and scale of human-induced climate change.
Hansen also calculated that, of over a million species that would be
made extinct because of climate change, the power station itself would
be responsible for around 400.
Goldsmith, adviser to the Conservative Party and editor of the Ecologist
magazine, pointed out the hypocrisy of calling for countries like India
and China to cut their emissions while Britain built new coal-fired
Goldsmith also told the jury: "Legalities aside, I suppose if a crime
is intended to prevent much larger crimes, I think then a lot of people
would consider that as justified and a good thing."
After the verdict, the protesters were jubilant. "This verdict marks a
tipping point for the climate change movement," said defendant Ben
Stewart. "If jurors from the heart of Middle England say it's legitimate
for a direct action group to shut down a coal-fired power station
because of the harm it does to our planet, then where does that leave
government energy policy? We have the clean technologies at hand to
power our economy, it's time we turned to them instead of coal."
Hansen echoed these sentiments when he told the jury, "We are in
grave peril. Somebody needs to step forward and say there has to be a
moratorium, draw a line in the sand and say no more coal-fired power
Despite this, and despite having admitted the danger of climate
change, the British government has advanced plans to allow new
coal-fired power stations, including one right next to that at
Kingsnorth, to be built, without any so-called "clean coal" technology.
While "clean coal" is decades away from being viable, if ever, there
is a perverse logic to the policy, with the government hoping that the
unabated pollution from coal stations will force up the price of carbon
emission permits, encouraging the market to invest in carbon-capture.
The Kingsnorth legal victory was a welcome victory in breaking the
coal addiction that is a major cause of climate change. There is no
guarantee, however, that the case won't be appeal and overturned by a
The true tipping point in the struggle against climate change will
come when enough people decide to force an end to the polluting ways on
government and big business, and demand the immediate introduction of
renewable energy technology.
First published in Green Left Weekly, October 19, 2009.