Two separate trials of 26 activists arrested for trying to shut down Ratcliffe on Sour, one of Britain’s most polluting power stations for a week have energised the climate justice movement. The activists were among 114 people arrested in a dawn raid on Easter Monday 2009 in a widely-criticised policing operation that saw officers smashing their way into a school in Nottingham.
In the first trial, at Nottingham Crown Court in late November, 20 people were tried for conspiracy to cause aggravated trespass. The activists openly accepted they wanted to force plant owners E.ON to safely shut down the power station for a week in an effort to stop 150,000 tonnes of CO2 entering the atmosphere. But they said they weren’t guilty of a crime because they were acting out of “necessity” due to the lack of an adequate response to climate change by corporations and politicians. This “defence of necessity” was denied at a previous climate trial before a jury, in Leeds in 2009.
The defendants in the Nottingham trial called a number of expert witnesses, including Professor James Hansen, acclaimed as the world’s leading climate scientist. Hansen told the jury: “It doesn’t surprise me that young people are angry when they know that politicians are lying to them.”
When challenged by the judge as to the measurable effects of the defendants’ proposed action, Hansen noted that the action could have prevented one, if not more, species from becoming extinct. Dr Ian Roberts, professor of epidemiology at the London school of hygiene and medicine, detailed to the court the real and imminent threat to health posed by climate change, saying we risk a “generational genocide” as we “sleepwalk into a nightmare”. Dr Roberts told the court that at least 150,000 people were dying every year as a result of human-made climate change.
Green party leader Caroline Lucas MP told the court that politicians had failed in their duty to protect the public from climate change.
The prosecution argued that the planned action amounted to nothing more than a publicity stunt and that the defendants would have done better to try to recruit celebrities like Cheryl Cole to support their campaign rather than carry out an action that would alienate the public.
Despite a remarkably even-handed summing up by the judge – described by supporters as “as sympathetic as he could get away with” – after three days of deliberation the jury found the defendants guilty. They were sentenced in January to a mixture of community service and fines, plus conditional discharges.
However, the legacy of the first Ratcliffe trial may well be that it reclaimed the right for activists to put the government and corporate response to climate change on trial alongside their actions. The prosecution had tried, at a pre-trial hearing, to prevent the Nottingham jury even hearing the defendants’ case.
Yet a judge in the high court in May rejected that argument, saying that “the circumstances in which a court will withdraw a defence from the jury will be very rare indeed”. This high court ruling will have a binding effect on future cases.
The second trial was due to see the remaining six activists argue that they were not party to the conspiracy as they hadn’t decided whether to participate at the time of arrest. The trial collapsed in January following the exposure of undercover police officer Mark Kennedy, who posed as “Mark Stone”.
The defence had asked for disclosure of evidence relating to Kennedy’s involvement, and the prosecution chose to drop the case rather than reveal it. Kennedy has since told the Mail on Sunday that secret recordings he made of the action planning would have cleared the six activists of conspiracy. The Times has subsequently reported that Nottinghamshire police are under investigation for perverting the course of justice.
Ben Stewart, one of the original 20 defendants, said: “Very serious allegations have been raised which throw into doubt the safety of our conviction, and there is possibly a miscarriage of justice.” “I don’t think any of us, when we were arrested, would have thought that a possible scenario at the end of this would be that the only people who face jail sentences are police officers for suppressing evidence.”
The collapse of the second trial has led to questions over whether the 20 in the first trial should have stuck to a civil liberties defence. But others have argued it was important to fight on both fronts.
“Do you play rugby union?” asked one poster on Indymedia. “It’s a bit like when the ref awards you a penalty, but play goes on. You can then try something very ambitious, even outrageous. If it doesn’t come off, it doesn’t matter because you’re going to get a penalty in your favour anyway. It’s a bit like that.”
Nevertheless the decision by a jury to find the activists guilty despite a week-long opportunity to present climate change evidence will be food for thought for future campaigns. Not every climate change trial can expect to end in acquittal and it is a success merely to air the arguments in court.
But the verdict does act as a litmus test of attitudes to climate change within wider society. The climate justice movement is already looking to renew itself in the shadow of austerity measures and following the continued failure of international climate negotiations. As defendant Brad Day wrote in the aftermath of the verdict: “Will the next 12 months see climate change, the issue, continue to slide into obscurity as climate change, the reality, kills at an ever escalating rate? “If we are to reverse the current trend, we need to do more than lobby our MPs. We need to do more than shut down coal-fired power stations. In 2011, we need to begin a comprehensive grassroots engagement project.”