Climate activists at Manchester Airport

At 2pm today 18 defendants were sentenced after being found guilty of conspiracy to commit aggravated trespass. Their crime was to attempt the shut-down of Ratcliffe- on- Soar, the UK’s third largest coal-fired power station. Yet, they argue that they are not criminals but defenders of the very future of the planet.

Their defence raised the argument of necessity which makes it excusable to commit an act which would otherwise be a crime, in order to prevent death and serious injury. A classic example is that it would be legal to break the window of a burning house in order to save the life of a child who was inside it. The defendants posited that they were acting to prevent the greater crimes of death and serious injury caused by climate change. They hoped their actions would prevent around 150 thousand tonnes of carbon emissions from being released into the atmosphere and would draw attention to the ‘failures of our present political system’-the perceived lack of government action towards meeting its legal duty to cut emissions by 80% by 2050.

Climate activism has swept the UK since 2008-we have seen the trials of the ‘Climate 9’, ‘Drax 29’ and Kingsnorth activists. The trial of 17 people who temporarily shut down Manchester Airport begins in February. Yet the legal system has failed to distribute even justice. In the Ratcliffe case the activists’ defence of necessity failed, whereas in the Kingsnorth case, the jury acquitted the defendants. Mike Schwarz suggests that juries are less concerned with future generations and the world community in these economically austere times. However, it cannot be acceptable to have such different outcomes based on the changing moods of juries.

The time has come for a radical re-think about how we frame our laws to reflect our concern as a society about climate change and its impact on future generations.  A dialogue needs to take place to decide who the real criminals in this arena are. A growing number of lawyers and others are involved in the international Wild Law movement which seeks to shift laws away from an anthropocentric approach, and to promote law which supports, rather than undermines, the environmental integrity and health of the Earth. Wild laws could grant legal standing for parts of the natural environment in the UK, as has been seen in other countries. It is time to take collective responsibility and to use the law to protect our planet.

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