Greenpeace activists in the dock: Experts take ‘the stand’ on climate change

Feature story - 5 September, 2008
As expert witnesses go, they don’t come any better than Professor James Hansen, one of the world’s leading climate scientists and Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. On Wednesday, he was called to give evidence before a UK Court on the threat posed by Kingsnorth coal-fired power station to the world’s climate. Six Greenpeace activists are being charged with criminal damage after they took action last October, to highlight the threat posed by Kingsnorth.

Coal is the worst climate offender

Hansen's evidence will be crucial in establishing their defence, since while the defendants accept the damage they caused, they say they did so to prevent much greater damage to other property and the planet.

Lawful damage

The trial is in its fifth day. The six Greenpeace activists are on trial for scaling a smokestack at Kingsnorth power station in October last year. They have been charged with causing £30,000 worth of criminal damage for painting "GORDON" down the chimney. They planned to paint "GORDON - BIN IT", but they weren't able to because of poor light.

The defendants accept that they caused the damage, but are arguing that is was lawful for them to damage the chimney in order to protect other property in Kent (where Kingsnorth is located), and around the world, said to be at the risk of much more serious damage from climate change caused to a large degree by coal-fired power stations.

Yesterday, Hansen was called to the stand to give evidence. Hansen has an impressive CV, having spent the last 20 years studying the Earth's climate. As well as numerous accolades for his work, he has given evidence to the US Congress and Senate several times and warned a succession of US Vice-Presidents, including Al Gore, about the impacts of climate change.

James Hansen in conversation outside Maidstone Crown Court


Kingsnorth kills

He told the 12 jurors at Maidstone Crown Court in Kent that emissions from the Kingsnorth power station led to damage to property worldwide, as well as the extinction of species and the creation of climate change refugees. During his testimony, Hansen warned that, if the world continues with business-as-usual, our descendants will be "left with a much more desolate planet and much less biodiversity". He said that even a two degree rise in temperature is "a recipe for global disaster" and that the last time the Earth was more than two degrees warmer than it is now, there was a 25-metre sea level rise. He pointed out that the UK bears the most responsibility for historical CO2 emissions in the atmosphere per person (followed by the US and then Germany) and that, if the UK carries on with business as usual, it could cause the extinction of nearly one million species; several hundred of these species extinctions could be associated directly with Kingsnorth power station.

It's not too late

During Live Earth, last year, he was invited to go on stage with Al Gore. He took his grandchildren along. "How many species do we need to save?", he asked them. "All of them," said his grand-daughter. "Me too," said his grandson.

"We can't save all of them," Hansen told the Court, "but we can still save most." But, although "there's just barely still time" we need an immediate moratorium on the construction of all new coal-fired power plants (without CCS) and the phasing out of existing coal plants. And somebody - whether it's the UK, US or Germany - needs "to stand up".

"Gordon Brown," he said, "should announce a moratorium on all new coal plants without carbon capture and storage." Speaking to the Jury, he also agreed with a statement made by former US Vice President and Nobel Peace Laureate, Al Gore: "I can't understand why there aren't rings of young people blocking bulldozers and preventing them from constructing coal-fired power stations". 

Just before Hansen's evidence, another defence expert witness, Dr Geoffrey Meaden (via video link from Brazil), confirmed that the examples of climate change impacts being cited by the defendants are 'true circumstances'. "It is overwhelmingly perceived," he said, "by the defendants, the scientific community and myself" that we are changing our climate. "There's an increasing urgency," he said, "for all citizens and governments to take action."

"Within five years," said Dr Meaden, "there could be no summer ice left in the Arctic...Ironically, the Kingsnorth area itself will be extremely vulnerable to flooding due to climate change. The situation is so urgent that unless we act immediately to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, by the next century we may have to abandon up to 20 percent of Kent to the sea... It behoves us to act with urgency."

Taking a stand 

One of our activists, Emily, also took the stand, and introduced herself and how she'd come to be involved with Greenpeace. Emily explained that whatever emissions are in the atmosphere now will have impacts for years to come. When asked why she climbed the chimney, she said, "I felt very strongly that I wanted to do that." And, when the pictures of her hanging off the top of Kingsnorth's smokestack were handed out, at least a couple of jurors gasped.

Another activist, Kevin, was next and introduced himself as a rope access worker from Wiltshire who had become concerned about climate change back in the '80s. Kevin's questions focused mostly on the safety aspects of the direct action. Much of the evidence presented by the expert witnesses was of a highly complicated technical nature and the 12 jurors really have a tough job to take it all in. But, in the end, burning fossil fuels causes climate change that is wreaking massive damage to the environment, the economy and human health. It is not too late to bring climate change under control and avoid the worst impacts.

Somebody needs to take a stand.

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