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.
On Monday 13th July, thirteen Plane Stupid activists staged a protest on London Heathrow’s northern runway. The message was simple: there is a choice between preventing climate change and building new runways – we cannot do both. Aviation is incredibly damaging to the climate and its unfettered growth will jeopardise the UK’s chance of meeting its ambitious and legally binding climate targets. The 2008 Climate Change Act stipulates that an emissions reduction of 80% from 1990 levels must be made by 2050. This will not be possible if airports are actively expanded. Together with many other groups, Plane Stupid has been part of the movement campaigning against the third runway at Heathrow since it was first proposed. We have prevented the third runway from being built before, and we will do it again. What is more, we will oppose the expansion of airports everywhere, not just at Heathrow. Put simply, we’re in it for the long haul. And finally: this is about the affluent frequent fliers who fly multiple times a year for short leisure trips. There is sufficient existing capacity to support business flights and family holidays; we just do not need another runway to facilitate the very wealthy jetting off every other weekend to holiday homes and on shopping trips. We have a choice to make, and we want to make sure that that choice is the right one.
If you know anything about climate change, you’ve probably heard of the IPCC. And not the IPCC that investigates police failures laughably poorly, but the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The IPCC synthesises the most current peer-reviewed scientific literature from an array of disciplines to come to conclusions about the ‘state of knowledge’ on many different facets of climate change. Its nature, and focus on consensus, makes it inherently conservative, but also a pillar of scientific reliability and methodological solidity. It is famously described as neutral, and policy relevant, rather than policy prescriptive, which further exemplifies this.
The most recent IPCC assessment report (AR5) was released at the end of 2013/beginning of 2014, and included a methodological change that reflects the current trends in the climate literature. Since the last report in 2007, many scientists have drifted towards the consideration of cumulative emissions in climate targets rather than annual emissions. A study in 2011 by Bowerman et al. found that the relationship between cumulative emissions and temperature change was nearly linear, meaning that temperature and cumulative emissions increase proportionally to each other (Figure 1). What that means scientifically is that cumulative emissions are the most important factor in explaining temperature change, and that they are therefore the best way to conceptualise possible futures. This sort of sentiment has been echoed in important work by people like Meinshausen and colleagues (their paper in 2009 has been cited 409 times now, according to Reuters’ scientific journal search engine) and Oxford University’s Myles Allen & co. in the same year. You’d be hard pressed now to find reputable papers that don’t mention cumulative emissions, so great has been the sea change in the literature.
This paradigm shift (if you can call it that) happened around the same time that the IPCC decided to introduce Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs) to replace the previous generation of scenarios, SRES. Previously, the IPCC had used SRES emissions scenarios that explicitly considered the effects of prescribed levels of emissions into the atmosphere. However, there was (and still is) enormous uncertainty regarding contributing factors such as population growth, economic development and technological advances, hence the move towards RCPs. Whereas SRES scenarios describe ‘what if’ situations if a given amount of carbon dioxide equivalent was emitted, RCPs relate to concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and are essentially cumulative emissions budgets. As such, this means that they are end-points that can be reached via multiple pathways, and are less pre-determined than the original scenarios, which generally ordained when emissions would have to peak, at what levels, who by, etc. This made them complicated, and bitterly contested, especially by the actors who stood to lose out most under the scenarios, such as heavy industry and fossil fuel giants. However, the IPCC does not embroil itself in all the political wrangling that surrounds climate policy, and instead synthesises a ‘Summary for Policymakers’ and leaves it at that.
The primary reason for the IPCC’s switch to RCPs in AR5 was rather banal: functionality. Previously, all three working groups had relied on each other’s outputs to carry out research, meaning the final working group ended up waiting around for the first two to do their bit of the science (don’t even let me begin on the lack of integration and inter-disciplinarity in science). Rather than relying on a linear research process, where the scientists working on emissions scenarios (working group 2) generated the concentrations, converted into radiative forcings, to force the climate models (working group 1), the outputs of which were used by impact modellers (working group 3) to determine the effects of change, working groups 2 and 3 could work simultaneously. From the concentrations in the RCPs, they could figure out a) the likely pathways and situations to achieve the concentrations shown, and b) their likely effects. It also introduced some common units, which made the report more coherent between working groups – rather than the physical scientists talking about radiative forcing potential, the emissions modellers thinking about emissions in parts per million (ppm), and the impacts modellers discussing the effects of 4°C warming, all 3 could use a consistent metric that made their conclusions more comparable.
So although the principal cause for the IPCC was to improve the practicalities of the research process, the other reason why it’s good that they’ve moved towards RCPs of course is because emissions don’t directly cause climate change. Emissions cause concentrations of greenhouse gases to increase, and greenhouse gases cause climate change by changing the energy balance of the Earth. All the energy we get in should be balanced by what goes out, and gases like CO2 selfishly cling on to some of that escaping energy, thereby warming the atmosphere – you’re probably familiar with the greenhouse effect; and this is essentially it. Greenhouse gases have what’s called a radiative forcing effect (that’s the way we measure that perturbation to the energy – or radiation – balance), and each RCP is named, very imaginatively, after the level of radiative forcing that would result from the concentrations stipulated in that scenario (i.e. RCP 6.0, RCP 8.5 etc.). In that way, RCPs are more directly related to the issue at hand, and remind us that climate changes as a result of atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases.
However, while this is scientifically pleasing, and arguably more correct, this introduces problems for the general public, and for communicating climate science. Science communication is notoriously difficult anyway, particularly with the mainstream media seemingly conspiring to take things out of context and misreport at every opportunity. RCPs are another thing to be confused and manipulated, and act as another barrier to action by individuals and governments. Emissions scenarios, initially developed in 2000 in the seminal Special Report on Emissions Scenarios (SRES, for which mitigation scenarios in the third and fourth IPCC reports are named), are explicitly about human activity – it’s in the name. It’s hard to ignore the effect of driving your car, flying to Australia for a conference or leaving the heating on while you’re out if you frame scenarios in terms of emissions. Emissions scenarios relate to emissions, and although they are notoriously difficult to quantify (due to the economic and political incentives to misreport, as well as the sheer size of the feat required to collate all the data) and predict, they are more in-your-face about the effects of all that fossil fuel burning. RCPs step out of the debate about normative (‘to reach this target you should do x/y/z’) vs. descriptive (‘if x happened, y and z might result’) scenarios – they can be anything because they aren’t about emissions. The multiplicity of possible trajectories that could result in the concentrations demonstrated in each RCP means they essentially don’t need to think about how these concentrations arise.
In essence, that’s my point: from a scientific standpoint, and an educational one, RCPs represent serious progress in scientific thinking. But from a communication and policy perspective, I think they are regressive, and will distract people from what they need to do to prevent the worst effects of climate change. Allowing the Daily Mail to suggest that emissions are nothing to do with the concentrations observed in the atmosphere will result in a lot of “your cows fart more than ours, you should cut your emissions first” and not a lot of “oh shit, we’re screwing up the planet, let’s do something about this” from policy makers at big meetings like the upcoming Paris COP summit, heralded as the “last chance saloon” by many commentators. To get policy makers to do something, you need to shake them up a bit, and then present them with realistic methods to achieve what they need to achieve. Oh, and give them as little ammunition for geopolitical bitching as possible. The end.