'This is big'

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‘Britain’s astounding retreat from reason is now legitimising anarchy.’ That was the conclusion of the hotblooded screaming radical Melanie Phillips, writing for The Spectator.

She was, of course, referring to the spectacular acquittal of six activists found not guilty of committing any criminal act, despite their admission that they caused £30,000 of damage to Kingsnorth coal-fired power station in Kent last year. The Greenpeace campaigners argued that they had a ‘lawful excuse’ to shut down the massively polluting power station, and commit the damage, because they acted to prevent greater damage to life and property around the world from climate change.

Following evidence from Inuit leader Aqqaluk Lynge, climate scientist James Hansen and Ecologist director Zac Goldsmith, the jurors, 12 ordinary people, concluded that a direct action group shutting down Kingsnorth was both eminently reasonable and proportionate given the circumstances. Like Mad Mel, right-wing fanatics and climate sceptics all over the blogosphere erupted with rage. ‘If this angry anarchistic mob can get away with it, so – using the same arguments – can Islamic terrorists,’ wrote one; and another: ‘This is a sad day for law and order, common sense, justice and Britain as a whole. It makes me sick to the stomach’.

Yet in the famous words of the English judge, Lord Devlin, ‘Every jury is a little parliament’, and it’s now apparent that on climate change, the verdict is in. It is a testament to how far the green movement has come that these contrarians can be safely dismissed as cranks and extremists. In fact, the reasonable position is now actively to encourage direct action in defence of the climate. Sharing a platform with Bono to address the Clinton Global Initiative in September, Al Gore received an ovation when he said, ‘If you’re a young person looking at the future of this planet and looking at what is being done right now, and not done, I believe we have reached the stage where it is time for civil disobedience to prevent the construction of new coal plants that do not have carbon capture and sequestration’. It remains to be seen whether Big Al will chain himself to the bulldozers, but what’s certain is that there’s a buzz and excitement in the movement because we’re starting to win the arguments.

If you’re a climate activist, it usually feels like an uphill struggle. In August, a friend of mine was jailed for defying the authorities and attending the Climate Camp outside Kingsnorth. In the coming weeks, 29 activists who halted a train carrying tonnes of coal to one of Europe’s biggest emiters at Drax in Yorkshire will stand trial and face the possibility of time behind bars. The Plane Stupid protesters who climbed the Palace of Westminster will also be up in court. There's a lot we could feel gloomy about - and yet the historic Kingsnorth victory has created sparkling eyes and a sense of reinvigoration.

People are recognising that the climate movement is legitimate, mainstream and absolutely necessary. This is exemplified by the jury’s decision in Maidstone, but it’s also evidenced by the way people who haven’t done direct action before are joining emerging local climate groups such as those detailed on new website www.thecoalhole.org, and how ever more West Londoners are signing up for direct action training to stop the third Heathrow runway. The climate movement is making history with tangible achievements. The Conservatives announced that the third runway will not be built if they win the next election. Would that have happened were it not for the incredible mobilisation of the past two years? The Independent reported: ‘Downing Street believes the [then] Business Secretary [John Hutton] stepped over the line’ in arguing for the greater use of coal. One minister even said Hutton was trying to ‘bounce the PM into a change of government policy’. Already the huge pressure over new coal is creating a split down the middle of the Cabinet. We are succeeding. No wonder that in its coverage of the Kingsnorth Six the influential American right-wing journal National Review opens with the words: ‘This is big’.

Joss Garman is an environmental campaigner and journalist

This article first appeared in the Ecologist November 2008

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