Originally published on the Norwich Radical.
I’m writing this in something of a state of shock. Yesterday, following a hastily shortened trial, and alongside twelve others of the #Heathrow13, I was found guilty of aggravated trespass and being ‘unlawfully airside’ (as it’s known in the biz – whatever that biz may be) and told that it was “almost inevitable that you will all receive immediate custodial sentences”. Everyone else was evidently shocked too. There were gasps in the public gallery as this bombshell was dropped, and cries of “shame on you!” from supporters watching.
The verdict in itself was certainly no surprise, as we had expected our necessity defence – that the action was justified by the devastating impacts that will be be caused by climate change and air pollution – to fail on legal grounds. However, although we had been prepared for custodial sentences on the advice of our barristers, we had not expected it. The previous week, the judge had given positive indications that she might be lenient – suggesting that she wanted the matter to go away quickly. Unfortunately it seems as though it was us that she wanted to go away quickly. I heard some people speculating that she may have come under political pressure over the weekend, given her apparent change of tack. However, the judge has a track record for harsh sentencing – she was drafted in for emergency sentencing following the 2011 London riots and is well known for public order cases. Unluckily for the Plane Stupid activists who blocked the Heathrow tunnel last December, she is also presiding over their case in March. The precedent she set yesterday was not a happy one.
The background is this: in July last year we entered the northern runway at Heathrow and locked ourselves together, erecting a tripod and harris fencing cage to resemble an iceberg. One of us sat on top wearing a polar bear outfit, using classic climate change imagery to underline the link between aviation and climate change. We occupied the runway for six hours, causing 25 flights to be cancelled, and in so doing saving hundreds, if not thousands, of tonnes of CO2 (and other greenhouse gases) from being emitted.
Heathrow airport is – or at least was in 2012 – the most highly polluting airport in the world. It is responsible for half of the UK’s emissions from aviation (i.e. it emits the same amount of greenhouse gases as all other UK airports put together). Aviation is responsible for 6% of the UK’s CO2 emissions, but this figure is misleading because the pollutants are emitted at altitude, where they have a more significant climate effect – the figure is therefore usually cited as being 2.7 times larger. That makes aviation responsible for somewhere in the region of 15% of UK emissions, and Heathrow responsible for half of that. After from the notorious Drax coal-fired power station, Heathrow is the largest single point emitter of CO2 in the country.
A recent study also found that within a 32 km radius of Heathrow, 31 deaths each year were directly attributable to emissions of NOx from aircraft. This term is short hand for Nitric oxides (NO and NO2), which are implicated in respiratory illnesses like asthma and the infamous ‘Heathrow cough’ which defendant Sam and defence witness Bryan spoke about in their evidence.
In short, Heathrow airport is killing people – both locally through air pollution and globally from climate change. However, it operates in a legislative vacuum – because a company that contributes £7 billion to the UK economy (apparently) doesn’t have to abide by the same rules as the rest of us. Aircraft fuel is exempt from VAT, and aviation has not been included in any national or international climate change legislation, essentially because no one can agree on how to do it. The EU Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS) recently included aviation in its mechanism, but only flights that originate and arrive in the EU are accounted for: that’s just 11% of global aviation emissions. Heathrow airport regularly violates legal air quality limits for NOx and ozone particularly – in 2013 illegal levels of ozone were recorded at Harmondsworth monitoring station (the only monitoring station in the area) on eleven occasions. Heathrow is permitted ten breaches per year.
Judge Wright in her judgement lingered on the effects to passengers and the UK economy. This is unsurprising – the legal system is not equipped to deal with the unchartered territory that climate change presents. The law does not yet have the vision to see that people can (and are!) act pre-emptively to prevent serious harm from threats as nebulous and enormous as climate change. Although we may not know their “names and addresses”, we know that people are dying every day from climate change – hundreds of thousands of people.
We will be – if sentenced as she suggests – the first people in UK legal history to go down for aggravated trespass exclusively. This charge was devised in the nineties to catch protesters, and it is the most common charge I have seen on my activist friends’ rap sheets. This is unprecedented, and we are being made an example of – peaceful protest is very rarely rewarded with prison time except in “exceptional” circumstances. The judgement is intended to deter others, and is symptomatic of the tightening of restrictions on protest and dissent under the guise of austerity – because remember, we are all in it together. Except some of us are more in it than others, and private property trumps human life, every time. The example that is being set is that you cannot cost companies an “astronomical” amount of money, without going down for it.
However, by doing this, Judge Wright has done something for the campaign that we could never have done ourselves – she has martyred us. Although this in itself is problematic, along with being called ‘heroes’ and compared to the suffragettes and Chartists, that is a whole other can of worms for another time. For now, I’ll happily be a Heathrow hooligan.
We have all been asked whether we would do it again, and I think the answer is the same. We all stand by what we did – doing what we could to fight climate change in the face of considerable adversity and against the will of the rich and powerful, using the only resources we had available to us – ourselves. The #Heathrow13 may be the first, but we will certainly not be the last. As long as airport expansion is on the table, anywhere, Plane Stupid will be there. We’re in it for the long haul.
Originally published on the Greenpeace blog.
Last July, I was part of a Plane Stupid direct action on Heathrow’s Northern runway. The action was part of long-running campaign against the third runway at Heathrow, and against UK airport expansion more generally. Today, we were found guilty of aggravated trespass and entering a security-restricted zone of an airport. Sentencing is expected on February 24th. We took action because we saw that it was sorely needed. When laws are unjust, ordinary people must take action to change them. Like the ‘Delta 5’, who were recently charged with stopping a coal train in the US, we acted to minimise the climate impacts of a hugely polluting industry. Although the legal system does not yet recognise that climate defence is not an offence, in the words of Judge Wright, we have “already won”.
On the 1st July, the long-awaited Airports Commission report was released, recommending the construction of a third runway at Heathrow. If the government acts on this recommendation (which appears likely) it will represent another massive U-turn on their part: in their 2010 pre-election manifesto, David Cameron’s Tories asserted that they would not back a third runway at Heathrow, “no ifs, no buts”. This promise was made at the height of the campaign against a third runway when there was significant pressure to oppose further development at Heathrow. Now in power, they clearly realise airport expansion is still an unpopular topic for Londoners. The decision is evidently a political one, with little consideration of the environmental impacts or necessity for more runways. Despite claims that airport capacity in the Southeast is at its limit, in a 2012 Parliamentary Transport Committee meeting, the chiefs of four of the region’s largest airports gave evidence to the effect that there is spare capacity at many airports in the UK. The final decision has been delayed until after the London elections in May so as not to hamper Conservative mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith’s chances, as he represents the Richmond Park & North Kingston constituency which sits under the flight path.
The environmental case against airport expansion – not just at Heathrow – is clear. The sector is stubbornly difficult to decarbonise and efficiency savings are far outstripped by increasing demand. If it were a country, the aviation industry would be the 7th most polluting in the world. According to DfT figures, aviation accounts for 6% of UK CO2 emissions but this figure is misleading because it doesn’t account for the amplified effects of emitting pollutants at cruising altitude, where they are much less readily removed and have more significant climate effects. Add to this the emissions of non-CO2 pollutants and a more accurate picture emerges, though policy-makers are still reluctant to accept that aviation is damaging to local health and global climate.
Aviation and shipping have so far been the elephant in the room when devising climate legislation, both national and international. Excluded from the 2008 Climate Change Act and Kyoto agreements, the trend has been followed at every climate summit to date – and Paris is no exception. Although included in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme from 2012, only flights that both originate and arrive in the European Economic Area are included – or around 11% of global aviation emissions. The International Civil Aviation Organisation, the specialised UN agency that regulates the aviation industry, makes noise about efficiency improvements and climate change targets but achieves very little. Those in power are taking very little action to tackle aviation’s significant contribution to climate change, so we must.
Last week, we gave evidence as part of our trial for charges of aggravated trespass and entering an aerodrome without permission. I gave evidence first, and found the line of prosecution far less hostile than I had imagined. Happily, the judge is also considerably more sympathetic than I think any of us anticipated, even making judicial note of the fact that climate change’s effects are “devastating” and that aviation is responsible for emissions – according to our barristers, potentially a first in legal history.
An incredible demo on Monday morning attended by such prominent figures as Natalie Bennett got us off to a flying start (excuse the pun), and support has been pouring in from all quarters. It’s been incredible, and we are very grateful for all the statements of solidarity we have received. We have been lauded as heroes and defenders of democracy, and I think the level of praise has been unexpected for all of us. We are, in the words of defendant – and fellow ‘hooligan’ – Mel Strickland, “13 ordinary people who find ourselves in an impossible situation…with the colossal problem of climate change. We don’t have the power, influence or resources that Heathrow does and there is no political will to change things via legal procedures.” Given the immovability of the government on the matter, we were all faced with a choice – to do nothing, or to take direct action.
Day 3: a sad day for J McDiz
By this point we’re all relatively relaxed about the whole shebang – I’ve sussed the cycle route to Willesden and everything. The last day of evidence was started with Eddy, followed by the Welsh contingent – Rich, Kara and Bec.
Sassy McGhee is doing his darndest now to prove that there was an ‘inception period’ between the perceived threat and the action that we took to prevent death and serious injury from air pollution and climate change – both requisites of the necessity defence we are running.
His questions seem bizarre, and by this point we’re all tired of the rigmarole of the line of enquiry – everyone is getting bored of being asked (and hearing the response to) “but do you know anyone there? [insert name of Pacific island/developing state/Heathrow village]”.
Of course when it comes to climate change it shouldn’t matter whether or not you know anyone personally – surely basic human compassion motivates you sufficiently to want to prevent people dying in droves, both now, and in the future from vector borne diseases, extreme weather events, and respiratory illnesses.
Yet another example of how the law is archaic, and a reminder that laws never get changed unless you break them.
Eddy spoke mainly on this topic – about our interconnectedness and how he didn’t see a reason for us to know personally anyone affected by climate change. Besides, we’re all affected by climate change; it’s just an unquantifiable set of effects…
Kara has used her work as an outdoor educator and environmental journalist to inform her activism, and she came across as a reasonable and well-informed person.
When asked by the judge, she said she had intended to stay there for as long as possible and stop “hundreds of planes”. Following this, the public got an unintended insight into the preparation and considerations that go into an action like this – when asked how we would attend to basic necessities such as going to the toilet, Kara responded (after flashing a sheepish grin at her giggling co-defendants) that “we were wearing nappies, Madam”. Laughter in the gallery >> The press association reporter scribbling >> Instant quote in the Guardian = WINNER.
It’s a serious point though:
“A day of discomfort is a very small price I’m willing to pay. We live a life of privilege in the UK, compared to people in the global south who face the prospect of death and destruction of their homes every single day from climate change.”
Six hours on a runway not weeing is small change in the grand scheme of things.
Rich has trained in law and despite being pretty snotty managed to beast his evidence. He started with a killer line slating the (lack of) international environmental law:
“It was in the last year of my law degree, when I took a module on international environmental law. The lecturer said that essentially there is no international environmental law, or at least none that’s worth the paper it’s written on.”
Rich has worked on consultations and policy professionally, and his experience is impressive. I think the judge thought so too.
I think McGhee started getting tetchy with Rich’s use of semantics on the topic of motivations, straying into the territory of neuroscience. He outsassed him with “Luckily we do not have to worry about what a neuroscientist might say, Mr. Hawkins”, a comment made all the more hilarious by the fact that one of Rich’s character references comes from a neuroscientist. Ah, what larks.
Last up was Bec, whose calm and collected manner was brilliant to underline the defence that our actions were reasonable and proportionate, never mind the fact that we “don’t know the names and addresses” of the 300,000 people who died last year as a result of climate change.
And so. That concluded the defendants’ evidence. The expert report of Alice Bows-Larkin had been agreed by the prosecution, so she was not required to give evidence live: it seems to me like they are all under pressure to reduce the media impact of this, and to make it go away quickly. Live evidence is much more powerful and attracts way more attention than evidence submitted in hard copy, even if it is read out in court.
The defence barristers read some key passages from the expert report, such as, to summarise:
- Heathrow contributes around 48% of the CO2 produced by domestic and international flights associated with the UK.
- Aviation’s climate effects are significantly higher than the emissions figures suggest because at the altitude that they fly at, the radiative forcing of pollutants is higher
- Significant barriers exit to decarbonisation in the aviation sector: the only option to reduce emissions from aviation is essentially to reduce demand.
- Crucially, for our defence: “The IPCC state that if climate change continues as projected in line with their Representative Concentration Pathways (RCP), the major negative changes to health compared to a no climate change future will include (inter alia):
- “Greater risk of injury, disease, and death due to more intense heat waves and fires (very high confidence)”
- “Increased risk of undernutrition resulting from diminished food production in poor regions (high confidence)”
- “Increased risks of food- and water-borne diseases (very high confidence) and vector-borne diseases (medium confidence)”(p713)”
Local residents’ testimony was read next. Bryan’s asthma has been worsening as a result of exposure to pollutants from the airport. His garden backs onto the airport and he says he can smell burning rubber outside. He has to stay inside the house and the noise causes him serious stress.
Marina’s statement detailed the effects of pollution on her health, which requires her to use medical oxygen. She notices a pronounced difference in her respiratory health when she leaves West London.
Phil has a 99% blockage in one artery, which he says is caused by stress and air pollution. His doctors have advised him to move from Harmondsworth where he has lived for 42 years.
This evidence was moving enough when passages were read and summarised by the barristers. One can only imagine what wonders it would have done for our defence had the witnesses been permitted to speak live.
The next bit was unexpectedly lovely and made me feel really proud. All of our references of good character were read and summarised for the court, and it made me immensely happy to be part of such a solid crew of passionate, talented, dedicated and wholly good people.
Hearing quotes read from my own statements gave me goosebumps to think that people I know and love have such respect for me, and that the same is true for all the other hooligans. Serious love. If I wasn’t such a hardass I probably could’ve shed a little tear.
The final battle was to get John McDonnell’s statement agreed by the prosecution – we’d already accepted that he wouldn’t be allowed to come to court to give evidence live. McGhee argued relentlessly that it wasn’t admissible or relevant and the judge agreed on the grounds that it didn’t help her decide on the issues she has to decide on: “Did the defendants honestly hold a reasonable belief that what they were doing was necessary to protect life and limb?”
Judge Wright attempted to persuade cunty McGhee to agree his statement, suggesting that the defendants might feel “aggrieved” were his evidence not to be heard.
However, he showed his true colours with his retort: “While I have some sympathy as a person for that argument, as the Prosecution lawyer I have none…End of story.”
Just remember kids: lawyers aren’t people. Straight from the horse’s mouth.
The final (incredible) thing that Judge Wright added was that despite not allowing J McDiz to give evidence in person, “I would say to the defendants, in respect of what you wanted him to say, you’ve already won.”
I’m continually surprised and amazed at the level of comprehension and sympathy we’re getting from a figure of establishment like DJ Wright (great stagename, btw: this alter ego is definitely well acquainted with my m8 Mandy on a weekend. That might be a you-had-to-be-there joke… soz). It’s all reinforcing the notion in my head that we are actually contributing to change – and that we’re merely ahead of the game in pushing for justice and testing the boundaries of the legal system.
So. That’s it. It’s all over – except it’s not. Sentencing happens on Monday 25th January at some point after 2pm, giving time for closing submissions from the prosecution and defence in the morning.
If you can come down and support, there’s an event here. It’s basically a foregone conclusion, but come and wave goodbye to our liberty with us regardless!
Day 2: evidence
Amusingly, after getting schooled during my evidence on the use of “Third World”, sassy McGhee has rather taken to using the term “Global South”. If nothing else, that’s an achievement in itself.
The Prosecution has been trying to prove that any effect we had on emissions was minimal in the grand scheme of things. Those who gave evidence on the second day refuted this by comparing the emissions saved by cancelling 25 flights to the energy usage of individuals and households in the UK, and confirming that in absolute terms, the figures are astounding. Stopping a flight is probably the most significant action an individual can take to reduce emissions, if you consider that the average UK citizen generates 9.4 tonnes of CO2 in a year, and the average household uses 20.7 tonnes (and a flight emits about 11).
All the defendants are Virtuous Activists – most of us have not flown in several years, do not drive and are actively involved in campaigning. It’s a shame we have all come across as being so painfully middle class but I think this probably plays into the judge forming more positive opinions of us. Besides, a lot of us ARE painfully middle class. The number of degrees between us is a bit sickening. It means, however, that we are in a position to utilise the privilege given to us by the patriarchal, imperialist and oppressive capitalist system.
Mel Strickland kicked off the day’s proceedings, delivering measured, sincere and impassioned evidence. She emphasised that the actions of Plane Stupid on the 13th of July were a direct action, which directly reduced emissions from aviation by preventing aircraft from taking off. She drew on expert testimony from Alice Bows-Larkin to show that this was a reasonable and proportionate response, given that Heathrow represents 48% of UK emissions from aviation, and that aviation cannot be decarbonised.
“We are 13 ordinary people who find ourselves in an impossible situation…with the colossal problem of climate change. We don’t have the power, influence or resources that Heathrow does and there is no political will to change things via legal procedures.”
Mel told the Prosecutor in her cross-examination that it is those who are unrepresented and have no stake in the political process, the millions who are suffering as a result of climate change, and local residents breathing poisonous air who she had in mind on that runway.
Amazingly, at this point, the Judge acknowledged that CO2 emissions cause climate change, with potentially “catastrophic” effects, and that aviation contributes to this.
Mel went on to say that efforts beyond the law are essential to democracy, and she exemplified, “That’s why you’re a Judge, Madam, because of the efforts of the suffragettes”; hands-down most badass retort to the judge all day (or any day)!
She ended on another powerful note: “This action was a carefully considered minimum possible response to total political failure to tackle climate change. We felt it was a basic moral commitment to act.” BOOM!
Next up, Dr. Rob Basto gave an emotional and clear testimony. He was typically modest, underplaying the understanding he has as a result of years of work and the small matter of a PhD in atmospheric physics. As he mentioned, the Arctic may be nearly ice-free in the summer by mid-century. Rob cited reading about this 15 years ago (when it was nowhere near as certain) as one of the pivotal and terrifying moment when he really became aware of climate change.
Rob also spoke emotively about the impacts of Heathrow Airport’s toxic air pollution on his sister-in-law’s health. He drew a useful analogy with smoking – we have a law against smoking inside. By preventing one person from smoking, you are improving the health and life outcomes of everyone in the room. Just because there is no identifiable person or effect does not mean the law to prevent people smoking inside is any less valid. Cancelling flights is like this – one less plane is 11 tonnes more CO2 that is not emitted.
We all have a responsibility to act, and the danger is now, and Rob isn’t going to stand idly by while people die, and neither will any of the other defendants.
Graham Thompson is a veteran climate campaigner, and he explained at length the negative effects of emissions from aviation, particularly at high altitude. As he noted, Heathrow is a huge point source of emissions, second in the UK only to Drax Power Station.
Judge Wright’s patience began to “wear thin” after Graham continued to elaborate on climate change’s relationship with Heathrow, but again she noted that she was prepared to believe that all the defendants feel passionately about the issues and feel they’ve been “banging their heads against a brick wall.”
Edge-of-the-seat stuff! What a result! Graham’s best quotes were tough to decide; it’s a clincher between these two:
“I’m sometimes concerned that I’m not doing enough, but I’ve never been worried I’m doing too much”
“I don’t believe I am entitled to break the law generally. I felt like breaking the law was not the most serious issue in this particular instance.”
The Judge keeps coming back to the issue that the emissions prevented were a tiny fraction of those emitted globally – however, this doesn’t detract from the fact that the world is 250 tonnes of CO2 better off as a result.
Next up: the polar bear (AKA Cameron Kaye). Cameron is a community campaigner who lives in the Heathrow villages and is involved with grassroots groups like HACAN and SHE. He restated that the Davies Report had been the final straw in terms of the campaign.
When pressed by the Judge, he described the difference between a direct action such as ours and a protest. Direct action stops the issue that one is concerned about, whereas a protest is more about raising awareness and lobbying. On the issue of necessity: “I felt like I didn’t have a choice any more.”
Comically, Cameron was grilled about why he was dressed as a polar bear – this mainly focused on the visual connotations and imagery associated as a means to suggest our actions were a publicity stunt. Perhaps it was useful to explain that the imagery was intended to be an iceberg (surrounded by people in blue – ahem – ‘the sea’) because it seems like we were the only ones who got that part. Something to work on next time, I suppose.
Danni Paffard, a “Professional Environmental Campaigner”, took to the witness box next. She came out swinging with some comparisons and statistics on climate and aviation emissions. As she pointed out, 2015 was the hottest year on record and contained news of Indonesian forest fires, floods in the UK and droughts in California.
Before Danni could get much further the judge interjected to prevent the trial becoming a “political platform”.
Even the people we hire to think about the impacts of aviation and climate change are being ignored by government. This represents a “huge failure in democratic processes [around Heathrow] and actions needs to be taken”. There are no other avenues to take. As Danni aptly put it, “Given the scale of the challenge, I think it was completely reasonable. Given the scale of the challenge, I think it was completely necessary.” Every tonne of carbon counts, especially when we’re running out of time.
The award for the best out of context quote for the day goes to District Judge Wright:
“Were you taking action in order to save the apples?”
Lucky number 8, Alistair Tamlit, focused on the failure of the political process, and the effects of climate change on people in the global South who are not responsible for emissions from aviation. He defended our actions as “absolutely” necessary and “absolutely reasonable in the face of the scale of climate change.”
Sheila Menon rapidly followed, hailing climate change as a “human rights issue of gargantuan scale”. She reminded us that the window of opportunity to act on climate change is rapidly closing and therefore reinforced the urgency that underpinned our decision to act. Ordinary people are paying with their lives because economic growth and prosperity are prioritised over life and limb, and people around the world are discounted in decisions, alarmingly.
Sheila then highlighted the inadequacy of the Davies Commission’s findings in that they investigated which airport to expand rather than whether to expand at all. Deciding to fly more planes represents a “suicidal” decision, given that we are currently on track for 4°C warming, which would have severe implications across the world. Even sitting in the shade in the hottest parts of the world could lead to death from exhaustion and heat stroke.
The day concluded abruptly and somewhat dramatically with the Judge rescheduling and shortening the trial. This meant an early finish and an impromptu trip to the pub before training. All this court stuff is doing wonders for my boxing career; I should do this more often!
A similar version of this has been published on the Plane Stupid website.
Warning: contains severe facetiousness
Day 1: the beginning
Despite having to wake up seemingly about ten minutes after I went to sleep and mission across London to Willesden, the morning was amazing. The solidarity demo called by Reclaim the Power outside the court was fantastic. I was exceedingly pleasantly surprised that nearly 100 people turned up on a Monday morning in deepest darkest (ok fine, it’s zone 3) West London to support us. In fact, it was so much more rowdy than I anticipated and I don’t think any of us could help but grin sheepishly as we rocked up en masse to chants of “no ifs, no buts, no new runways!”
I accidentally-on-purpose wore all black, which I’m going to blame on the fact that my red coat got ‘borrowed’ at the last minute, so I didn’t exactly fit in with the #redlines theme, but, y’know, swings and roundabouts. At least black has gravitas. A statement was briefly read about the effects of climate change across the world as well as the effects closer to home of air pollution on life under the Heathrow flight path.
After a bit of running around doing media stuff and saying hello to a million lovely and wonderful people, we decided it was time to go into court (although we did have to stand in a queue awkwardly for an agonising few minutes while a single, elderly security guard sedately checked our bags).
The prosecution (aka sexy/sassy/cunty McGhee – delete where appropriate) began the case by establishing the (undisputed) facts of our presence. He helpfully provided the court with a comical compilation video supplied courtesy of the Metropolitan police with some of the most hilarious mugshots I have ever seen alongside footage of a polar bear atop an iceberg tripod, and come chuffed-looking activisty types perched on a runway.
The first witness evidence came from two Heathrow employees who seemed to have literally no expertise in anything the defence barristers asked them about. The first was a particularly sad looking head of business resilience, who claimed we had caused loads of disruption to the airport. However, he didn’t really seem sure about whether or not you could separate the effect of bad weather later from our actions. He had obviously been told to say he wasn’t an expert in response to any difficult question and he dutifully trotted out the company line on about 6 occasions. Not really sure what he was an expert in – maybe looking morose in a suit. The next guy looked like a nervous little mouse and had to be asked to speak up a few times. Poor little squeak had only been in the job a year, and admitted that Heathrow has never grounded aircraft because of concerns over environmental regulation or violations thereof. Funny that.
There wasn’t much more after that and I sat in the defendants’ box psyching myself up to be the first person to give evidence and hoping the judge was hungry and wouldn’t make me start before the break. Luckily my wish was granted and I went off to get my head in the game.
* * *
I’d never sat in a dock before. In all honesty I was relieved that the side of my head facing the judge didn’t have any sneaky leopard print peeking out. I was billed to speak for two and a half hours but in the end it probably wasn’t quite that long. Thankfully.
Our defence barrister lead the evidence-in-chief – that’s essentially the stuff that you want to say – and began by establishing who the hell I was and what I was doing there. I felt like a bit of a wanker when I said it but decided to go to town on the fact that I have two degrees in climate science – that is why I was there after all. I intended for my evidence to comprise primarily of scientifically based reasoning, to show the judge that climate change is a real and dangerous threat.
Although our lawyers had got a bollocking earlier about the sheer volume of evidence we had submitted for me to refer to (and I assure you, it was a drop in the ocean in terms of published climate literature), she allowed me the pleasure of having to hand the HUGE lever arch folder we’d prepared. It’s big enough to bludgeon someone to death with. At least you can’t say that the science doesn’t carry some weight…
And to think – that doesn’t include the IPCC report at all.
I highlighted some of the pivotal papers that had informed my knowledge of the climate science. These included Manabe & Wetherald (1967), widely considered by climate scientists to be the most important seminal paper on climate change (Carbon Brief did a great story on this); Hansen et al. (2015) which calls warming of 2°C “dangerous”; several papers by Alice Bows-Larkin, who also happens to be our expert witness, which relate aviation to climate change; the IPCC’s 1999 assessment of aviation’s impact on climate, and a helluva lot of papers on impacts. I’m going to do a post in a few days with more of the science I talked about, so hang tight, bros.
In brief, the argument is as follows: we were on the runway to prevent emissions from aircraft. Aviation is known to generate emissions of greenhouse gases and air pollutants. Greenhouse gases cause climate change. Climate change is killing people, now, and will continue to kill people in the future unless we act to prevent that happening. Same goes for air pollution. Ergo, we were saving lives. The effects of air pollution are local primarily, while climate impacts are more nebulous and global in nature.
Miraculously all the quotes and numbers came to me like a dream: that climate change is “unequivocal” and “unprecedented on timescales of decades to millennia” and that warming of 0.85°C was observed between 1880 and 2012. Check me out – who needs the IPCC SPM when you’ve got Gilbz’s brain???
I went through the legislation on climate and aviation – mentioning that the Climate Change Act 2008 sets out the UK’s legal obligation to reduce emissions by 80% on 1990 levels, and that by 2050 aviation could emit a quarter (or more if demand isn’t capped) of the UK’s total carbon budget.
Lastly, it was important to note that the effects of climate change are – and will become more so – devastating. Sea level rise, collapse of ice sheets, increases in vector-borne diseases, decimation of crop yields, a rapid acceleration in the number of extreme events – all things that will cause death and serious harm to people across the world, primarily in poor countries and low-lying areas where people bear little responsibility for fucking the climate quite so catastrophically.
After we went through the rigmarole of establishing that climate change is a Bad Thing, the prosecution took over to try to take my argument apart. It’s a shame he has a nice face because generally he is of a nasty disposition. Misleading advertising, I’d say. McGhee assumed his barristerial pose (do they all have one of those? I think they definitely do. Watching lawyers is amusing) and began his cross-examination. He wasn’t actually too hostile to me, and the judge was probably a better prosecution lawyer than he was – she asked me more difficult questions about the statistics I’d used. Essentially, she wanted to prove that the relative number of flights (read: emissions) we’d stopped was minimal. I argued that in terms of an individual’s actions, and in absolute terms, the amount of flights we got cancelled was huge.
It was at this point, I think, that she asked why we didn’t occupy the M25 instead: “now, I’m not suggesting you do this of course”. Giggling from the hooligans. Again, statistical nitty gritty but I feel like I held my own. In terms of emissions, one flight is a hell of a lot of cars.
I think then it was all over. It’s all a bit of a blur. We had a break and I had loads of people I’d never met congratulate me on my evidence. I basically have no idea what I said but I’m pretty sure I didn’t fuck up. Actually, I’m pretty sure I bossed it as much as I could have. A good precedent to set.
Sam continued in this vein and absolutely smashed it too. I was a bit too full of adrenalin and relief to remember much of what he said in detail, sadly. He grew up under the flight path and has lived in the Heathrow villages for about 3 years. He churned out an impressive barrage of stats on the effects of air pollution locally (such as the ‘Heathrow cough’) and on the effects of climate change.
We came across passionately and knowledgeably enough for the judge to concede that she has no doubt about our genuine beliefs that climate change is the largest threat facing humanity today, and that our motivation was founded in that belief. Incredible.
Court adjourned and I trotted off to boxing to get my nose smashed by a 15 year old. FANTASTIC!! WHAT A MONDAY!!
Airport expansion is unsustainable – environmentally, socially, and politically. First and foremost, aviation is a hugely polluting industry, responsible for emissions of around 34 Mt CO2 e in 2013 in the UK. Airports also cause enormous suffering for local residents by drastically reducing local air quality and contributing considerably to local noise pollution. Imagine having a plane fly over your house at 80 decibels every 90 seconds. That’s something as loud as a pneumatic drill or a motorbike. Every 90 seconds!
In 2010 David Cameron promised he would not back a third runway at Heathrow, “no ifs, no buts”. That’s the phrase Plane Stupid protesters picked up on before Christmas when they blocked the tunnel leading to terminals 1, 2 and 3. It’s also a phrase that demonstrates as well as any other the government’s willingness to compromise their promises and U-turn on key commitments such as their commitment to tackling climate change.
A non-committal response, or worse, no commitment at all, on climate change is exactly what is not needed following the Paris climate summit in December. The summit was considered to be a pivotal moment in the global struggle to limit the worst effects of climate change, and time is running out to reach a global agreement that will prevent warming of more than 2°C taking place, the agreed threshold considered to be “dangerous climate change”. James Hansen, the eminent climate scientist, lambasted the agreement as a “fraud” because while it (somewhat ambitiously) outlines an aim to keep warming to below 1.5°C, it does not legally commit any of the signatories to do so.
Our dependence on carbon-based fossil fuels is driving climate change. Aviation is inherently carbon intensive because of its reliance on petroleum-derived fuels like Kerosene. You can’t safely substitute more than 10% of jet fuel for biofuels, and that’s before you even consider the associated issues of the food vs. fuel debate.
Aircraft themselves are also difficult to decarbonise – most of the efficiency savings that are currently technologically possible (such as weight reductions or streamlining aircraft bodies) have already been made and there are few remaining options. Marginal reductions of aviation’s carbon footprint are possible, for instance with the introduction of operational measures like air traffic management, but ultimately the only thing that will reduce emissions is reducing the number of flights.
In this context, it is clear that government plans to expand Heathrow airport are utterly unsustainable, and totally irresponsible. Direct actions like those taken by Plane Stupid activists last month and in July are becoming more and more necessary given the failure of our government to listen to popular demands to scrap destructive plans like a third runway.