Which is the greater crime?

Alice Bows’ testimony evidently wasn’t enough to persuade the Aberdeen jury to acquit the nine Plane Stupid protestors accused of breaching the peace by their brief occupation of Aberdeen airport last year. A majority verdict yesterday declared them guilty, and the Guardian reports that they are likely to face heavy fines or jail terms.

Those undertaking acts of civil disobedience do not normally expect to escape legal consequences. One of the defendants, Don Glass, 25, of Glasgow, said afterwards he was not surprised to be found guilty. However he pointed out that the trial had served a useful purpose:

“ We were in the self-titled oil capital of Europe and to get climate change in front of a jury is an achievement in itself. To get one of the top sheriffs in Aberdeen to say let’s not dispute that climate change is man-made is an achievement.

“Two weeks talking about the important civil disobedience and protest and freedom of expression in the face of runaway climate change is an achievement. We now know the importance of non-violent direct action in the fact of inaction from the courts.”

What he meant by inaction from the courts is probably indicated by the comments of another protestor, Tilly Gifford, 24, from Glasgow:

“We set out to show in court that policies such as the aviation white paper contradict what the science demands. Now that the court has heard expert witnesses testify to the imperative need to cut emissions, they are mandated to prosecute the real criminals, the corporations who are profiting from polluting.”

There appears to be no legal structure to enable charges against corporations and feet-dragging governments with crimes against future generations and probably against existing populations in some parts of the world.  But the claim that acts of non-violent civil disobedience have legal excuse  because they aim to prevent a higher crime against humanity through carbon emissions is an entirely reasonable defence to offer. If Don Glass’s declaration post-trial that climate protesters now have to step up their campaigns of civil disobedience proves to have substance, we will see more such trials and hear more such defences. Even when they fail they will surely keep the question alive in the public mind. I salute those who are prepared to do that. And lament that it should be necessary. In a rational world it would by now be the chief focus of government and business to work furiously to decarbonise our economies.

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