Time to ring some changes

By Bryan Walker 29/08/2010

Climate protestors at Aberdeen The results of the first climate trial in Scotland’s history were declared a few days ago when the court imposed modest fines ranging from £300 to £700 on each of nine activists who had broken into the Aberdeen airport in protest against the soaring carbon dioxide emissions caused by aviation.

Dan Glass, one of the nine, has commented:

“We’re not terrorists, we’re people who believe delivering our message on climate change is worth being charged and fined…We are secretaries, parents, cooks, community workers, architects and saxophonists. We are part of a growing movement of concerned citizens who are prepared to put our bodies in the way of dangerous high-carbon developments.”

He spoke of their action as “justified, proportionate and necessary” in the face of catastrophic climate change, and quoted Michael Mansfield QC, one of Britain’s best-known defence barristers, who a couple of days prior to the sentencing said:

“As I write, one fifth of Pakistan, already blighted by earthquakes, is covered with flood waters threatening the health and safety of over six million people. Without conscientious and principled protest which focuses on the undoubted factors which contribute to this decimation of the environment, the urgency of the problem will not be addressed. I trust these entirely legitimate and selfless objectives will be reflected in the way the Climate 9 are judged by the court.”

It looks as if they were.

They certainly were last year in the UK when the Kingsnorth protestors, charged with criminal damage after painting messages on the chimney stack, won a jury  acquittal, aided by the testimony of expert witness James Hansen. The defence lawyer Michael Wolkind QC wrote afterwards:

“The formal document served on the court set out our position: the defendants acted in order to protect property that included ‘the Siberian permafrost and tundra regions, especially the Kola peninsula; the continental ice sheets; the Tibetan peninsula; the Yellow river in China, its banks and connected waterways; public and private property in Bangladesh; property belonging to or cultivated by subsistence farmers in sub-Saharan Africa, such as Senegal, Namibia and Mozambique; private and public property in coastal regions and inland waterways of Indonesia and Sri Lanka, including farm land producing crops; property belonging to the Inuit people of the Arctic, northern Alaska, eastern Greenland and Canada’.”

The statutory framework was according to the law:

“A person shall have a lawful excuse if he damaged property in order to protect property belonging to another and at the time of the act he believed (1) that the property was in immediate need of protection and (2) that the means of protection adopted were reasonable having regard to all the circumstances.”

Across the Atlantic  in June last year James Hansen announced his readiness to engage in civil disobedience:

“If the Obama administration is unwilling or unable to stop the massive environmental destruction of historic mountain ranges and essential drinking water for a relatively tiny amount of coal, can we honestly believe they will be able to phase out coal emissions at the level necessary to stop climate change? The issue of mountaintop removal is so important that I and others concerned about this problem will engage in an act of civil disobedience on June 23 at a mountaintop removal site in Coal River Valley, West Virginia.”

He did that and was arrested as a result.

In a recent statement he explores the issue.

“‘How did you become an activist?’ I was surprised by the question. I never considered myself an activist. I am a slow-paced taciturn scientist from the Midwest. Most of my relatives are pretty conservative. I can imagine attitudes at home toward ‘activists’.

“I was about to protest the characterization — but I had been arrested, more than once. And I had testified in defense of others who had broken the law. Sure, we only meant to draw attention to problems of continued fossil fuel addiction. But weren’t there other ways to do that in a democracy? How had I been sucked into being an ‘activist’?”

He explains his disappointment that even green governments like Norway’s find it too inconvenient to address the implications of scientific facts. (I reported that disappointment recently.)

“It becomes clear that needed actions will happen only if the public, somehow, becomes forcefully involved. One way that citizens can help is by blocking coal plants, tar sands, and mining the last drops of fossil fuels from public and pristine lands and the deep ocean.”

He then delivers what will no doubt be denounced as a call to further acts of civil disobedience:

“To the young people I say: stand up for your rights — demand that the government be honest and address the consequences of their policies. To the old people I say: let us gird up our loins and fight on the side of young people for protection of the world they will  inherit.

“I look forward to standing with young people and their supporters, helping them develop their case, as they demand their proper due and fight for nature and their future. I guess that makes me an activist.”

Non-violent civil disobedience has a long and honourable tradition back through Martin Luther King, Ghandi, Thoreau and many others.  Thus far in relation to climate change it is sporadic but if governments continue to ignore their responsibility to drastically reduce emissions we may expect to see more of it.  Understandably so. What else will serve to communicate the deep seriousness of the issue? The capacity of governments to blandly absorb the climate message, sometimes to acknowledge it, and then to carry on regardless is beginning to seem limitless. Civil disobedience puts a strain on the body politic which the kind of people who engage in it would normally seek to avoid. But there is much at stake.

Thoreau in his famous essay on civil disobedience was forthright:

’How does it become a man to behave toward the American government today? I answer, that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it. I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave’s government also.’

It will be protested that failure to act on climate change is hardly in the same league as condoning slavery. Perhaps not — though how do you class an issue that threatens so much human misery and will make fragile the bases of human civilisation? And like the abolition of the slave trade and slavery it is being put off because of the economic dislocation it will allegedly cause. Vested interests trump democratic processes.

[Richard Thompson]