The jury may have found the climate protestors at Ratcliffe-on-Soar coal power station guilty of conspiracy to commit aggravated trespass, but the judge in his sentencing yesterday clearly showed a good deal of sympathy with the offenders. The 18 activists received sentences ranging from 18 months conditional discharge to 90 hours unpaid work. Two of them received modest fines. Judge Jonathan Teare conceded the public may consider his sentencing “impossibly lenient”. But he said he had been put in a highly unique position given the moral standing of the campaigners.
“You are all decent men and women with a genuine concern for others, and in particular for the survival of planet Earth in something resembling its present form.
“I have no doubt that each of you acted with the highest possible motives. And that is an extremely important consideration.
“There is not one of you who cannot provide glowing references from peers or professionals. And if I select some of the adjectives that recur throughout they are these: honest, sincere, conscientious, intelligent, committed, dedicated, caring.”
However he said motivation could not absolve them from punishment and proceeded to impose the mild sentences.
During their trial at Nottingham crown court, the defendants admitted they planned to break into the plant, but argued they were acting to prevent the greater crimes of death and serious injury caused by climate change.
They claimed that had their protest succeeded in closing down the power station for a week, they would have prevented the emission of 150,000 tonnes of CO2.
In a statement after the sentences were handed down the defendants maintained their position:
“We still feel our actions are a reasonable response to the irrational destructive situation, of runaway climate change … that we are taking action on climate change is no longer an option, it’s a necessity. We want to reiterate our support for everyone everywhere fighting for climate justice.”
James Hansen was among the witnesses who appeared for the defence. Much of his evidence revolved around the need to avoid reaching a tipping point where climate change would spiral outside of control. “You do not want to reach a point where you begin to get collapse (of ice sheets) and rapid change. If you reach that point you have gone too far and it will be out of humanity’s control.”
The lenient sentences reflect those handed down in a Scottish court to the Aberdeen airport protestors, which I discussed on Hot Topic a few months ago. Protestors such as these deliberately break the law and in doing so indicate their preparedness to face the consequences. Those of us who merely watch may be pleased for them when the consequences are less severe than the law allows, but there is more at stake than whether the courts’s sentencing will be harsh or not.
As Bradley Day, one of the Ratcliffe protestors suggests in a Guardian article today, there is small solace in lenient sentences alongside the realities with which the protestors are concerned:
“Despite hearing terrifying evidence from some of world’s leading climate change experts; learning of the millions of pounds spent in their local area as a result of extreme weather conditions; listening to gut-wrenching testimonies from flood victims across the globe; and observing senior politicians explain our crippling democratic deficit, the jury went on to deliver a unanimous guilty verdict.”
It’s what the verdict implies about the public response to climate change that bothers him.
“The jury received a more extensive education on climate change than most people get in a lifetime. That they could not vindicate our actions is nothing to get self-righteous about; it is deeply disturbing. If the jury, after everything they had heard, couldn’t bring themselves to sympathise with our actions, who will?”
Five years ago when he first engaged in the issue he was full of optimism.
“People appeared to be waking up to the issue in the nick of time. Like hundreds of others, we launched a community action group in our town. When we hosted a public meeting it was standing room only.”
But as the years passed it became apparent that nothing had been achieved, and he now thinks climate change is being treated as an issue of the past, as it gets only a fraction of the attention it enjoyed not so long ago. (This impression receives some confirmation from a recent analysis of media climate coverage in 2010).
So what’s to be done? He works through to a McKibben-like conclusion:
“Will the next 12 months see climate change, the issue, continue to slide into obscurity as climate change, the reality, kills at an ever escalating rate? If we are to reverse the current trend we need to do more than lobby our MPs. We need to do more than shut down coal-fired power stations. In 2011 we need to begin a comprehensive grassroots engagement project.”
It’s hard slog he’s looking at:
“This is no small task. Three weeks in front of the world’s leading climate experts didn’t do it for 12 people from Nottingham. This scheme requires long-term commitment. Getting out and talking about these challenging issues is draining and comes with little glory. But those of us terrified by the prospect of climate change cannot afford to ignore those who don’t feel the same way.”
Climate change is a terrifying prospect. So is a society which continues about its business as if little untoward is happening, even though it treats with some leniency those who resort to civil disobedience to challenge that complacency.