Climate activism: is the trial more important than the protest?

Climate activists outside court

Climate activists used the court case to publicise the necessity of tackling emissions from the aviation sector

As nine climate change activists are fined by a Scottish judge for breaking into Aberdeen airport, we look at how courtroom manoeuvres form a crucial part of the package

They came in the night, wielding plastic golf clubs and D-locks, playing mini-golf on the tarmac of Aberdeen airport before locking themselves to a barricade to disrupt the morning’s flights.

The climate activists were aiming to draw attention to the airport’s planned expansion and the building of a £750m golf resort nearby which would increase international flights.

Their protest back in March 2010 came to an end after five hours when they were told by police that their actions were endangering an emergency helicopter flight to help a critically-ill baby.

This was disproved during the subsequent trial at Aberdeen Sherriffs Court, but the group's members, who call themselves the ‘Climate 9’, were convicted of the Scottish crime of ‘breach of the peace’. They were handed fines ranging from £300 to £700 each.

Kingsnorth success

It was a different outcome than the 2008 English case of the ‘Kingsnorth Six’, where the defendants successfully argued that the shutting down and painting of ‘Gordon’ onto the cooling stack of a coal fired power station in Kent had ‘lawful excuse’ because of damage caused to the planet by carbon dioxide emissions.

That verdict was heralded as a turning point by environmentalists, but the Aberdeen airport verdict suggests juries will still hold activists to account for damage or losses caused as a result of their actions.

Unlike in the Kingsnorth case, the defence of ‘lawful excuse’ was not available to the Aberdeen defendants. Instead their lawyers argued ‘necessity’ – a defence which is seen as harder to win.

The fact the lives of members of the public were disrupted may have also reduced the chances of the Aberdeen airport defendants being acquitted, according to one of the Kingsnorth Six.

‘It’s common sense that it’s easier to persuade the public of the validity of the action if the public aren’t inconvenienced. In the Kingsnorth action, it was a power station behind a large fence belonging to a big company. The public weren’t adversely affected,’ said Ben Stewart, one of the activists who scaled the 220 meter high tower at the Kingsnorth power station in 2007.

Is prison a deterrent?

For the Aberdeen airport defendants, sentencing guidelines dictate they could have received up to five years in jail. In the end they were given only modest fines, but one of those convicted in the case, Dan Glass, says harsher punishments won’t dissuade activists from similar actions in the future.

‘The more people see the wings of state trying to put us away while scientists support what we’re doing, the more we will see civil disobedience in the face of government failure on climate change,’ said Glass.

Evidence from the US appears to support Glass’ argument.

‘If you look at the example of high profile activists in the US, such as Rod Coronado, who was put behind bars for disrupting the hunting of mountain lions, his imprisonment had a mobilising rather than a demobilsing effect,’ said Lesley Wood, Profesor of Sociology at York University in Toronto.

As Richard George, co-founder of the environmental activist group Plane Stupid, puts it: ‘Some people are put off, but far more are pissed off and galvanised into activity.’

But activist Ben Stewart believes fewer people may consider environmental direct action if the sentences become harsher.

‘Most people that do these things are normal people, with the same financial and work constraints as anyone else. It’s extremely difficult to throw caution to the wind and say you’ll take whatever they give you. But if you give a prison sentence to direct activists, you make martyrs of them - the courts are mindful of this,’ said Stewart.

Using the courts for publicity

In the case of the Aberdeen airport protest, the court hearing formed the more significant part of the nine climate activist’s campaign. Having rebranded themselves as the ‘Climate 9’, they set up a website featuring commentary on the case and a forum where they received hundreds of messages of support.
‘Before we stepped on the runway, we knew that the court case would be a significant part of our action,’ said Glass.

‘By campaigning around the court case, we made allegiances with a huge number of groups that don’t usually campaign on environmental issues.

‘One of our supporters is the Church of Scotland, who acknowledged that breaking the law was legitimate in our situation.’

The court case also provided a forum in which government environment policy was scrutinised.

Dr. Alice Bows, lecturer in Energy and Climate Change at Manchester University, and retired lecturer and UN advisor Dr. Geoff Meaden, both of whom gave evidence in the Kingsnorth trial, gave a damning opinion of the UK Government response to climate change.

Dr. Meaden said Plane Stupid, whose members were involved in the protest, ‘must take every opportunity to bring the urgency of climate change to the public attention.’

Police tactics criticised

During the trial, jurors also heard how police officers had misled protestors to believe that they were endangering the life of a critically ill baby.

‘This doesn’t help change people’s perception that the police can be unscrupulous and heavy-handed in their dealings with environmental protestors,’ said Glass.

‘It just shows the lengths that the state is prepared to go to to stop us from having our voices heard,’ he added.

The National Extremism Tactical Coordination Unit (NETCU), which collects information on suspected extremists, acknowledges that environmentalists now feature highly in their intelligence gathering and say that it is sometimes necessary to hold informtion on lawful protesters ‘to make effective risk assessments in the future.’

Last year, NETCU intelligence led to the arrest of 114 environmental protesters believed to be planning a direct action protest at a coal fire power station near Nottingham.

Nottingham court case

Glass, who took part in this action, is one of 26 who are now due to stand trial in November. But far from dreading the hearing, he and the other defendants are busy deciding on how to make the most of their court appearance.

‘We’re currently holding meetings on how best to campaign around the trial and how to use it to highlight the impact of the Ratcliffe power station,’ said Glass.

‘It’s also an opportunity to draw attention to the way police gather intelligence on activists,’ he added.

Glass and other activists believe the public would be dismayed to see an environmental protester imprisoned for an action that posed no risk to human life and, in the case of the Ratcliffe Power Station protest, hasn’t even happened yet.

‘We’re torn. Obviously we don’t want to go to jail but we recognise that a prison sentence would be extremely significant and would highlight the contradictions of the UK’s environmental policy,’ said Glass.

'I’m more than ready to go to prison; in many ways it could be a great thing,’ he added.

Andrew Hickman is a freelance journalist

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