Six Greenpeace activists in UK released in landmark verdict

Feature story - September 10, 2008
KENT, United Kingdom — On 9th October 2007 a bunch of Greenpeace activists shutdown a coal fired power plant in Kingsnorth, Kent, UK. They were arrested and charged with criminal damage. Nearly one year later and they have been acquitted in a landmark court decision. Prevention of property damage from climate change, which is, in part, fuelled by Coal Plants like the one in Kingsnorth, was succesfully used as an argument by the defence.

Five activists at the top of the 200m chimney at the Kingsnorth coal power plant.

It's been a pretty unusual ten days but today has been truly extraordinary. At 3.20pm, the jury came back into court and announced a majority verdict of not guilty! All six defendants - Kevin, Emily, Tim, Will, Ben and Huw - were acquitted of criminal damage.

To recap on how important this verdict is: the defendants campaigners were accused of causing £30,000 of criminal damage to Kingsnorth smokestack from painting. The defence was that they had 'lawful excuse' - because they were acting to protect property around the world "in immediate need of protection" from the impacts of climate change, caused in part by burning coal.

So the evidence for the defence centred around the enormous damage burning coal does to ecosystems, people and property around the planet - and the UK government's abject failure to take any meaningful action.

(This is the first case, by the way, where preventing property damage from climate change has been used as part of a 'lawful excuse' defence in Crown Court.)

During the trial, the world's leading climate scientist came to court and challenged the government's plans for new coal, calling for Gordon Brown to announce a moratorium on all new coal-fired power plants without carbon capture and storage. Cameron's environmental policy adviser said there was "a staggering mismatch between what we've heard from government and what we've seen from government in terms of policy". An expert on climate change impacts in the UK said some of the property in immediate need of protection from sea level rises included parts of Kent (Kingsnorth being "extremely vulnerable") and that "it behoves us to act with urgency". And an Inuit leader told of his first hand experiences of the impacts of climate change.

After hearing all of the evidence, the jurors (representatives of ordinary British people) supported the right to take direct action to protect the climate from the burning of coal.

So where does this leave the government's energy policy? Seen in the light of the verdict, their plans to build a new coal plant at Kingsnorth (which could emit as much as the world's 30 least polluting countries combined every year for 40 or 50 years) show not only their abject failure to act on climate change, but also that their policies are actively leading us in the wrong (and very dangerous) direction. Ministers now find themselves in a very tight corner.

Once I'm back in the office, I'll publish the witness statements from Jim Hansen, Dr Geoff Meaden, Zac Goldsmith, Jennifer Morgan and Aqqaluk Lynge in full (they're well worth reading). And keep an eye out for our next podcast, where we'll be talking to the defendants and to Jim Hansen about coal, climate change and the trial.

In the meantime, you can find out more about coal, why we don't need it to keep the lights on and why the government should be pursuing efficiency, renewables and combined heat and power instead.

But for now, with a huge thanks to the brilliant defence legal team - Michael Wolkind QC, barrister Quincy Whitaker, and Mike Schwarz and Catherine Jackson of Bindmans Solicitors - it's over and out from the Kingsnorth trial.

To everyone receiving this by email, thank you for signing up for the updates, and for your messages of support. If you'd like to hear from us regularly, you can sign up to get fortnightly(ish) updates about our campaigns and nonviolent direct actions from us here.

Finally, we've turned commenting back on, so feel free to leave your thoughts below (although I might take a wee while to answer them; I suspect some celebrations with the defendants are afoot)...