Climate Change a Viable Defense in British Court

| 9/29/2008 2:55:59 PM

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="" 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.

Cally Carswell
10/2/2008 1:16:46 PM

Those interested in climate law might also want to see a story called "Greening all the Lawyers" from Utne's latest issue. Professor Mary Wood discusses the possibility of interesting litigation to come. The legal theory she's building would address climate change in the courts under the auspices of trust law:

Gil Keteltas
9/30/2008 2:51:38 PM

The Kingsnorth case also raises interesting questions concerning how a jury may wrestle with emerging climate litigation. Jury consultant Chuck Kaufman discussed this question in a recent post at

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