As climate catastrophe unfolds, small activist victories in UK courts

The future may depend on those who believe this is so and are willing to risk their freedom to address the climate emergency.

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September 27th,2019 was a beautiful Autumn day here in the eastern Canadian city of Montreal. Thousands of people on foot, on skateboards, scooters and bikes thronged the streets close to the city center. They carried signs and placards, marching to Mont Royal park where a then 16 year old Greta Thunberg was going to address the issue of our time: the global climate emergency.

While it’s true that many of the estimated 500,000 people that turned out that day were climate activists for just a few hours to be part of what seemed like history in the making, many others, including student strikers who risked disciplinary action for their weekly protests and long term climate activists felt vindicated for the sweat and tears they’d dedicated to a movement that finally seemed to have enough momentum to force changes to business as usual for many of the world’s governments, especially those of the richer countries most responsible for the crisis.

In a meeting with Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, earlier in the day, the famously plain spoken Thunberg told him, “he wasn’t doing enough”, a critique that remains true today. 

At the time of Thunberg’s speech, most of us were aware that the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had reported there were just 12 years left to reverse catastrophic global warming, but in many places it seemed due to the pressure created by activists and ordinary citizens governments would no longer be able to put off crafting policies to address the emergency and related issues like biodiversity loss.

In an unforeseen twist, as 2019 ended and 2020 began, there were already whispers in the press about a virus first discovered in the Chinese city of Wuhan that would lead to a full fledged pandemic. Soon after, it traveled around the world leaving panic, fear and death in its wake. With most countries imposing some kind of lockdown, as much as activist communities tried to keep the momentum going in online spaces, climate change as an issue was once again on the back burner.

Some optimists hoped that the public health restrictions might substantially slow carbon emissions in the short term, giving the world more time. Unfortunately, this hasn’t turned out to be the case, with more emissions in 2021 than 2019.

The most recent IPCC report, released on April 4th and focused on ‘adaptation’, reportedly shows that the always somewhat conservative body composed of scientists has practically given up on voluntary reductions and in seeming desperation is calling for technological solutions like carbon capture and storage that offer few guarantees of success.

One of the most interesting movements that had grown exponentially prior to the pandemic, Extinction Rebellion, asked its members to risk prison for their activism and found large numbers of ordinary working people willing to do so. The group rose to fame in the UK through mass actions and quickly established chapters throughout the world.

Many self-appointed critics in the UK’s notoriously rightwing press argued against the tactic of forcing authorities to make arrests and bemoaned the disruptions the group caused with their large actions like the days long “Summer Uprising” in 2019 that snarled traffic in various locations, including in front of the country’s parliament. Actions that were intended in part to overwhelm the system and force the country’s government to meet their demands.

Most importantly, these demands included a Citizens’ Assembly on Climate and Ecological Justice that would draw on the public rather than politicians or the experts to create a framework for change.

In recent months, cases in the UK for Extinction Rebellion activists arrested during large actions in 2018, 2019 and early 2020 were beginning to move through the courts, with most of the activists demanding trial by jury. Some in the climate movement have hoped for years that victories for those engaged in disruptive direct actions could be won in various courts around the world through the use of the ‘necessity defense’.

As explained by the Free Dictionary online, “The rationale behind the necessity defense is that sometimes, in a particular situation, a technical breach of the law is more advantageous to society than the consequence of strict adherence to the law.” 

One of the early cases in late 2019 seemed to show that this strategy would not work as judges could simply tell jurors to rule out this defense in their deliberations.

As reported by the Guardian at the time, three defendants arrested for gluing themselves to a train,“…had sought to use a defence of necessity, but Judge Silas Reid ruled it out and gave strong directions to the jury to convict the defendants. On Wednesday [December 19th, 2019], after an hour of deliberations, the jury unanimously found the defendants guilty, but the foreman added the decision had been taken “with regret”. 

While the defense didn’t work in this particular case, the reaction of the jury was promising and later cases seem to show that those serving on juries are becoming more willing to go against the instructions of judges and the arguments of prosecutors to ignore necessity as a defense.

A more recent case against six defendants, including one of Extinction Rebellion’s co-founders, who were charged with spraying graffiti, breaking windows and “having an article with intent to destroy or damage property” was adjudicated in Southwark Crown Court.  The actions were undertaken at a larger protest targeting the London headquarters of fossil fuel giant Shell.

As reported by the BBC in the article cited above, the six argued their actions were a “necessary” and “proportionate” response to the harm being caused [by the company]”.

One of those charged, Seanan Clifford, 60, told the seven woman, 5 man jury last Spring, “A true verdict means that you make a conscious consideration of the law, as the judge has outlined it; that you think carefully about what he has said, but then, that you do not necessarily follow it. It is your decision.”

The jury acquitted the six defendants on all charges despite the judge telling jurors that their actions could not be defended under the law.

This victory, small as it was, not only sets a legal precedent in the UK but shows that juries of their peers can have a positive impact on activists using the necessity defense regardless of the arguments made by judges and prosecutors. With less than 3 years left according to the most recent IPCC report to drastically reduce carbon emissions globally or face potentially terrible consequences, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for those who argue that actions like those of Extinction Rebellion aren’t absolutely necessary.

The future may depend on those who believe this is so and are willing to risk their freedom to address the climate emergency.

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