Climate activists spared jail: does this make their protest a success?

Exploring the charges that have changed environmental history.


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Activists who blockaded a Heathrow runway are celebrating avoiding jail today, in what is being hailed as a victory for the climate movement.

The campaigners, known as the “Heathrow 13”, broke into a restricted area of the airport last July, causing 25 flight cancellations and numerous delays. At their trial last month a district judge warned that jailtime was almost inevitable.

High profile figures, from the shadow chancellor to Emma Thompson, have since come out in their support. And this afternoon the threat of custody was downgraded to six-week suspended sentences.

But with legal judgement so muddled, what makes this - or any - environmental protest a success?

Public opinion did not initially appear to be behind the action: no-one likes missing a flight. Campaigners point out that 70 per cent of UK flights are taken by just 15 per cent of people. Yet the protest did not discriminate between frequent flyers and those travelling for essential business or leisure; a decision that may have alienated support.

Set against this, however, is the sympathy generated by the court's heavy-handed response. One defendant, Danni Paffard, spoke movingly, about her preparations for prison in the Guardian this morning. While a tweet from Green MP Caroline Lucas contended that the group should "never have faced the stress of threatened incarceration".

The court's escalation thus allowed activists to draw attention to wider questions of environemntal justice. For instance, is it “just” for the aviation industry to remain largely exempt from emission reduction requirements? Or that European pollution from planes is set to rise by 43 per cent, precipitating tens of thousands of deaths a year in the UK alone?

These concerns raise deeper issues relating to corporate influence over the state, as well as to the rights of those in developing world.

For now though, while the Heathrow 13 have fallen foul of the law, they are confident their actions will “end up on the right side of history”. Something for which history itself gives them at least five reasons to be hopeful...

1. The Delta Five (2016)

Last month climate change experts testified, for the first time on American soil, as part of a "necessity" defence. Once used to defend cannibalism in the case of sailors lost at sea, this defence argues that illegal actions (such as blocking trains) are sometimes justified to prevent a greater harm (such as preventing the crude oil those trains carry from contributing to climate armageddon). In this case, the judge ultimately instructed the jury to ignore the testimony, and the defendants lost. But not before setting a precedent that could change global activism for years to come.

2. The Arctic 30 (2013)

In 2013, after three months in a Russian prison eating rotten fish, the 30 Greenpeace activists charged with piracy were finally released. The story of their attempt to board an Gazprom oil rig, and the diplomacy crisis that ensued, will soon hit the silver screen. But their cause already struck gold last Autumn, when Obama announced a ban on future arctic drilling. 

3. The Kingsnorth Six (2008)

Climate change is not yet an accepted “necessity” defence in America, but in the UK it has already led to an acquittal. In 2008, six Greenpeace activists were cleared of causing £30,000 of criminal damage at a coal-fired power station. The jury deemed their actions to be justified by the threat of climate change.

4. The Tree Woman

In 1989, Wangari Maathai was thrown out of court for seeking to halt the construction of luxury apartments over Ururu Park – the only green public space in Nairobi, Kenya. Soldiers would later physically beat her for opposing the destruction of the Karura forest. Yet not only did Maathai survive, both the privatisation projects were cancelled, her Pan-African Green Belt Network flourished, and she went on to win a Nobel Peace Prize; the first African woman, and the first environmentalist, to do so.

5. William Aldred (1610)

Aldred was not taken to court himself. Yet his seventeenth century lawsuit against a neighbour’s pig sty could be a handy precedent for those hoping to hold the air industry to account over pollution. The court ruled in his favour; acknowledging that the intense smell had stripped Alfred of his personal dignity, violated his rights, and made his home “unbearable to live in”. Go Aldred.

India Bourke is an editor at AFP Asia Pacific and was previously environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman