Big Issue North: Climate Change Trials and the Greater Harm Principle

Here’s an article I wrote for the Big Issue North Mag a couple of weeks ago on the recent Manchester trial of climate activists…

Climate Activist Fail to Convince Juries of Their Case

The guilty verdict at the recent trial of six climate activists who broke into Manchester Airport and formed a human chain around a plane to highlight aviation emissions delivers another blow to environmental campaigners defending direct action.

At Trafford magistrates court Judge Jonathan Taaffe dismissed claims by the activists that their law-breaking was justified by the need to tackle climate change and insisted that there was only a “remote” link between their actions and reducing emissions. The prosecution also pointed out that the activists’ actions had actually led to an increase in carbon emissions as the plane they delayed burned an extra £1,500 worth of fuel.

Greater threat

The Manchester climate trial follows a string of cases in which climate campaigners have failed to convince either a judge or a jury that their actions were lawful because they were attempting to prevent the greater threat of climate change.

Last December climate activists who planned to shut down the coal station at Ratcliffe-on-Soar near Nottingham failed to convince a jury that their actions were justified by the “imminent threat” of global warming. Campaigners who obstructed a train carrying 1,000 tonnes of coal heading to Drax station in North Yorkshire were also handed a guilty sentence in 2009 as the jury didn’t feel that their actions were “necessary and proportionate to prevent the greater crime of carbon pollution”.

The recent guilty verdicts have dashed hopes following the Kingsnorth Trial in 2008, in which six Greenpeace activists were cleared of criminal damages after they defaced a power station chimney with the word “Gordon”. It was the first case to successfully argue that the actions of the campaigners were legally justifiable as they were trying to stop climate change causing greater harm to property around the world.

Activists championing various causes such as an end to GM crops and disarmament have a long history of successfully invoking the defence that they took direct action to prevent a greater crime.

In 1996, four female arms activists who damaged a Hawk fighter jet belonging to British Aerospace were acquitted by a Liverpool jury on the basis that they wanted to prevent a greater crime from being committed – that the Indonesian government would use the plane against people in East Timor.

Moral convictions

However, climate activists have struggled to apply this defence with the same level of success, which suggests that judges and juries may not see carbon emissions as a threat in the same way that they see a fighter jet as a menace to human life.

Mike Schwarz, a criminal defence solicitor at the London-based firm Bindmans, explained that the defences open to environmental activists – lawful excuse, necessity or preventing greater harm – all conflate into the general principle of preventing a greater crime and that environmental activists had few other options in mounting a legal defence.

But Robbie Gillett, 24, a climate campaigner who was found guilty at the recent Manchester trial, insisted that people will continue to take direct action based on their moral convictions and not the verdicts delivered in court.

Proud tradition

“People take direct action to stop emissions or to prevent high-carbon infrastructure from going ahead because they see it as the right thing to do,” he said. “Whether you’re acquitted or found guilty isn’t important.
“Of course the Kingsnorth acquittal sent a really uplifting message to the climate movement but it’s misleading to think that direct action relies on the judiciary’s support. We have a long and proud tradition of direct action here in the UK and I think that will continue regardless of what the courts say.”

By Arwa Aburawa

Photo: the six activists found guilty over direct action at Manchester Airport

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