The case against the Kingsnorth protesters was a landmark moment in the climate change debate, says their lawyer
I have been defending in murder and terrorism cases for more than 30 years. My clients are rarely popular – perhaps Tony Martin was an exception – but I introduced the Kingsnorth six to the jury as “the nicest defendants ever to be in a dock at a crown court and they are accused of trying to save the planet. This trial is not about knives or muggings, the defendants are goodies not hoodies.”
The charge of criminal damage concerned their daubing of the chimney stack at Kingsnorth, but I wanted the case to be a landmark play of the climate change debate.
We did not run a shy defence. The formal document served on the court set out our position: the defendants acted in order to protect property that included “the Siberian permafrost and tundra regions, especially the Kola peninsula; the continental ice sheets; the Tibetan peninsula; the Yellow river in China, its banks and connected waterways; public and private property in Bangladesh; property belonging to or cultivated by subsistence farmers in sub-Saharan Africa, such as Senegal, Namibia and Mozambique; private and public property in coastal regions and inland waterways of Indonesia and Sri Lanka, including farm land producing crops; property belonging to the Inuit people of the Arctic, northern Alaska, eastern Greenland and Canada.”
We added places in danger at home, including “property in close proximity to the Kingsnorth and Tilbury power stations”.
We made our case that every ton of coal burned makes an immediate contribution to the quantity of CO2 in the atmosphere and therefore a long-term and irreversible contribution to the greenhouse effect. So, by closing a coal plant down for three or four days, you are preventing significant damage.
We called a number of eminent and impressive experts, including the former US vice-president Al Gore’s climate adviser, James Hansen. A highlight of the trial was when Hansen was using a map in the witness box, and I suggested that it might be easier for him to approach the jury and point out the land in danger. Local citizens met a leading world authority who showed them how a rise in sea level meant their own properties would be swept away.
I was aware that some jurors could find the science too complex and lose concentration. I introduced some expert evidence on climate changes from early historical periods by telling them that my favourite part of the history was when “global temperatures peaked 50 million years ago and India crashed into Asia.” I continued: “Let me make it clear that the crash was not the defendants’ fault. Most of them don’t drive and, anyway, they all have alibis for that day.”
The statutory framework for the defence was not that difficult. According to the law: “A person shall have a lawful excuse if he damaged property in order to protect property belonging to another and at the time of the act he believed (1) that the property was in immediate need of protection and (2) that the means of protection adopted were reasonable having regard to all the circumstances.”
The defence is sensible. If you see a fire in your neighbours’ garden and you know they are out, you can break down his fence to prevent damage to his plants and to his bouncy castle. The law provides a “lawful excuse” to damage or destroy your neighbour’s fence to put out the fire and save the grass and the earth. The defendants acted to put out the coal fire and save the Earth because so much is in danger and immediate action is called for. Not tomorrow, but now.
From the moment I took on the case I was confident of the acquittal. A conviction of these defendants would have been as perverse as a policy to build new coal-fired power stations. And it doubtless would have been sold by politicians as showing public approval of government policy. A conviction would have given more power to both E.On and the police who each, in their own way, already have too much power.
Michael Wolkind QC is the barrister who acted for the Greenpeace activists who were acquitted of causing £30,000 of damage to Kingsnorth power station last year.