Posted in Movements by Kate Archdeacon on August 27th, 2009
Extracts from “Climate disobedience: Is a new “Seattle” in the making?“, Mark Engler, via grist
Image: Hazelwood Power Station by kingey1971, via flickr
In the early morning of October 8, 2007, a small group of British Greenpeace activists slipped inside a hulking smokestack that towers more than 600 feet above a coal-fired power plant in Kent, England. While other activists cut electricity on the plant’s grounds, they prepared to climb the interior of the structure to its top, rappel down its outside, and paint in block letters a demand that Prime Minister Gordon Brown put an end to plants like the Kingsnorth facility, which releases nearly 20,000 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each day.
In the end, the fatigued, soot-covered climbers were only able to paint the word “Gordon” on the chimney before, facing dizzying heights, police helicopters, and a high court injunction, they were compelled to abandon the attempt and submit to arrest.
The case took on historic weight after the Kingsnorth Six went to court, where they presented to a jury what is known in the United States as a “necessity” defense. This defense applies to situations in which a person violates a law to prevent a greater, imminent harm from occurring: for example, when someone breaks down a door to put out a fire in a burning building.
In the Kingsnorth case, world-renowned climate scientist James Hansen, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, flew to England to testify. According to the Guardian, he presented evidence that the Kingsnorth plant alone could be expected to cause sufficient global warming to prompt “the extinction of 400 species over its lifetime.” Citing a British government study showing that each ton of released carbon dioxide incurs $85 in future climate-change costs, the activists contended that shutting the plant down for the day had prevented $1.6 million in damages—a far greater harm to society than any rendered by their paint—and that their transgressions should therefore be excused.
What surprised both Greenpeace and the prosecution was that 12 ordinary Britons agreed.
The jury returned with an acquittal, and the freed defendants made the front pages of newspapers throughout the country. The tumult also produced political results. In April, British energy and climate change minister Ed Miliband announced a reversal in governmental policy on power stations, declaring, “The era of new unabated coal has come to an end.” Discussing Kingsnorth, Daniel Mittler, a long-time environmental activist in Germany, told me recently, “it was probably one of the most impactful civil disobedience cases the world has ever seen, because it was the right action at the right time.”
The idea that now is the right time for more resolute action to address the climate crisis is spreading fast enough to dot the global map with hot spots of disobedience. As it turns out, the Kingsnorth Six are part of a rapidly growing population. Joining them are the Dominion 11, arrested after forming a human blockade to stop the construction of a coal plant in Wise County, Virginia, in November 2008, and the Drax 29, who went on trial this summer for boarding and stopping a train delivering coal to a power plant in North Yorkshire, England, last year.
In fact, arrests are piling up quicker than journalists can coin name-and-number nicknames. The Coal Swarm website keeps track of an ever-lengthening list of protests. New headlines now appear weekly:
“Activists scale 20-story dragline at mountaintop removal site in Twilight, WV”
“14 Arrested at TVA headquarters in Knoxville, TN”
“10 activists board coal ship in Kent, England”
“Activists shut down Collie Power Station, Western Australia”
In August 2007, Al Gore, Nobel-prize-winning author of An Inconvenient Truth, told Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, “I can’t understand why there aren’t rings of young people blocking bulldozers and preventing them from constructing coal-fired power plants.” By the time Gore made that statement, some young people had already started blocking bulldozers, and many more, young and old, would soon follow.
Still, Gore can be excused for feeling that such measures were overdue. With global warming, perhaps more than any other issue, there is a disjuncture between a widespread acknowledgment of the gravity of the situation we face and a social willingness to respond in any proportionate way.