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Climate Change a Viable Defense in British Court

by Cally Carswell 

Tags: Environment, climate change, civil disobedience, coal, Kingsnorth Six, Greenpeace, Guardian, National Review, Lazy Environmentalist, Christian Science Monitor,

KingsnorthA group of Greenpeace activists dubbed the “Kingsnorth Six” were found not guilty of criminal damage by a British jury earlier this month, despite fessing up to defacing a coal-fired power plant in an attempt to shut it down. Their creative legal team argued that the damage was justified under a law that excuses property damage inflicted to prevent greater property damage, which the defense said would occur as a result of climate change.

Guardian" href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/sep/11/activists.kingsnorthclimatecamp" target="_blank">According to the Guardian, “The court was told that some of the property 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.” NASA climate scientist James Hansen, an outspoken public critic of coal-fired power, testified on behalf of the defense and told the jury the Kingsnorth plant’s emissions could lead to the extinction of as many as 400 species.

The verdict could be interpreted as an endorsement of civil disobedience in the name of climate change, which likely thrills environmental activists who favor direct action. Guardian environment editor John Vidal speculates that “the floodgates have been opened and that it will be open season on coal and other dirty energy industries…History would suggest that the carbon protest movement will gain in confidence like the anti-roads and GM movements, and that coal will be targeted mercilessly.”

Vandalism as a form of protest is a controversial tactic. Writing for the National Review, Henry Payne slams Hansen for endorsing “eco-vandalism,” saying he “has seriously damaged the credibility of a movement that has struggled to separate its apocalyptic rhetoric from more extreme environmentalists who demand violent action to match that rhetoric.” The Lazy Environmentalist  blog takes a different stance, seeing the verdict as “a vitally important step in recognising potential legal ‘rights’ of the planet.”

On a related note, Al Gore encouraged young people to engage in civil disobedience to halt climate change at the Clinton Global Initiative gathering last week—which prompted the Christian Science Monitor to ask, “Does Al Gore think he’s too old for civil disobedience?”

Image by Crosbiesmith, licensed under Creative Commons.