British Court Rules Direct Action OK Because Global Warming Risks So Bad

Verdict marks a 'tipping point' for climate change movement

Media release - September 11, 2008
A British Court today acquitted six Greenpeace volunteers for attempting to shut down a coal-fired power plant in Kent on the grounds that they had a "lawful excuse" because the coal plant was causing so much property damage around the world due to global warming that it exceeded the property damage done through shutting operations of the coal plant.The Maidstone Crown Court heard testimony from NASA climate expert James Hansen, an Inuit leader from Greenland and the British Conservative Party’s environment adviser. The jury was told that the Kingsnorth Power Plant emits 20,000 tons of CO2 every day - the same amount as the 30 least polluting countries in the world combined – and that the British Government had advanced plans to build a new coal-fired power station next to the existing site on the Hoo Peninsula in Kent.

The Maidstone Crown Court heard testimony from NASA climate expert James Hansen, an Inuit leader from Greenland and the British Conservative Party's environment adviser. The jury was told that the Kingsnorth Power Plant emits 20,000 tons of CO2 every day - the same amount as the 30 least polluting countries in the world combined - and that the British Government had advanced plans to build a new coal-fired power station next to the existing site on the Hoo Peninsula in Kent.

The 'not guilty' verdict means the jury believed that shutting down the coal plant was justified in the context of the damage to property caused around the world by CO2 emissions from Kingsnorth.

One of the Kingsnorth 6, Emily Hall, said after her acquittal:

"This is a huge blow for [British Prime Minister] Gordon Brown and his plans for new coal-fired power stations," said Emily Hall, one of the acquitted activists. "It wasn't only us in the dock, it was coal-fired power generation as well."

"This verdict marks a tipping point for the climate change movement," added defendant Ben Stewart. "If jurors from the heart of Middle England say it's legitimate for a direct action group to shut down a coal-fired power station because of the harm it does to our planet, then where does that leave government energy policy? We have the clean technologies at hand to power our economy, it's time we turned to them instead of coal."

The defense called as a witness NASA climate expert James Hansen, who told the court that more than a million species would be made extinct because of climate change and calculated that Kingsnorth would proportionally be responsible for 400 of these.

"We are in grave peril," he told the jury. "Somebody needs to step forward and say there has to be a moratorium, draw a line in the sand and say no more coal-fired power stations."

Asked by defense attorney Michael Wolkind if carbon dioxide damages property, Hansen replied, "Yes, it does." Asked if stopping emissions of any amount of it therefore protects property, he replied, "Yes it does, in proportion to the amount." He added that he thought there was an immediate need to protect property at risk from climate change.

Conservative Party green adviser Zac Goldsmith also gave evidence for the defence.

"By building a coal-power plant in this country, it makes it very much harder in exerting pressure on countries like China and India," Goldsmith said. "I think that's something that is felt in Government circles…Legalities aside, I suppose if a crime is intended to prevent much larger crimes, I think then a lot of people would consider that as justified and a good thing."

Some of the property the court was told was in immediate need of protection included parts of Kent at risk from rising sea levels, the Pacific island state of Tuvalu and areas of Greenland. The defendants also cited the Arctic ice sheet, China's Yellow River region, the Larsen B ice shelf in Antarctica, coastal areas of Bangladesh and the city of New Orleans.

The acquittal is the first case where preventing property damage from climate change has been used as part of a 'lawful excuse' defense in court. The defense has previously been successfully deployed by defendants accused of damaging a military jet bound for Indonesia to be used in the war against East Timor before independence.