Why Heathrow 13 verdict could lead to more radical climate activism, not less

Prison to prosecco: the Heathrow 13 celebrate after avoiding jail time. Stefan Rousseau / PA

Why Heathrow 13 verdict could lead to more radical climate activism, not less

Prison to prosecco: the Heathrow 13 celebrate after avoiding jail time. Stefan Rousseau / PA

The so-called “Heathrow 13” Plane Stupid climate activists have been given suspended prison sentences for trespassing on the airport’s runway. The case – and the decision of the judge to hand down custodial sentences at all, even if they were suspended – illustrates the way judicial attitudes to unlawful climate activism have seesawed over the years, and the harsh treatment meted out to the activists may yet backfire.

In 2008, six Greenpeace activists who had admitted causing criminal damage at Kingsnorth power plant were found not guilty by a jury, following a week of expert testimony on coal and climate change. It seemed a significant moment for the UK climate movement. Their “lawful excuse” defence justified their actions to fight global warming, and appeared to offer campaigners a way to make governments take both notice and action.

But subsequent acts of mass disobedience faltered: in April 2009, 114 activists planning to shut down Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station were pre-emptively arrested in a case which ultimately brought to light the extent of police infiltration of the environmental protest movement.

Do you have your boarding pass ready, sir? Plane Stupid / PA

Later that year 29 activists were found guilty of “obstructing the railway” by a jury in Leeds after the judge refused to allow them to present a necessity defence and call expert witnesses to justify their “hijacking” of a coal train at Drax power station. And in June 2010, nine Plane Stupid activists were found guilty by a jury and fined for breach of the peace after they had broken into Aberdeen airport and played golf on the runway, dressed as Donald Trump. Taking non-violent direct action in order to “put climate change on trial” seemed at a dead end.

The trial of the Heathrow 13 may have changed all that. In fact, the activists probably owe a vote of thanks to district judge Deborah Wright. History tells us that social movements not only mobilise when conditions are favourable; they also mobilise in response to threat, especially where that threat is widely seen as an injustice.

The court’s guilty verdict was to be expected, but the judge’s threat to impose the maximum sentence of three months imprisonment succeeded in producing a wave of sympathetic media coverage, internet petitions and an impressive and sustained show of solidarity from 300 or so supporters outside the court. Criminal trials are social theatre: Wright’s promise of a punitive sentence turned this one into a political event.

Protesters hold up a train taking coal to the giant Drax power station. John Giles / PA

In so doing, the trial reminds us that the courts, especially the criminal courts, are a site of battles over legal and political legitimacy. Trials like that of the Heathrow 13 are, in the strict sense, about the causes that motivate action, the weighing of harms and the acceptability of specific conducts – but they are also about the scope that democratic societies afford for small groups of citizens to challenge what they perceive to be injustice in the name of the collective good.

What next for the climate movement?

Though the Heathrow 13 were spared jail time, a suspended prison sentence for a non-violent minor crime, committed by (largely) first-time offenders, arguably remains extraordinary and excessive. In 2006, sitting in a High Court appeals case of anti-war activists who had committed aggravated trespass and criminal damage at RAF Fairford on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, Lord Justice Hoffmann formalised a basic bargain: where activists act in a publicly accountable way – with restraint, sincerity, and a sense of proportion – then police, prosecutors, and magistrates should show sensitivity and equal restraint, taking the conscientious motives of protesters into account.

Activists are aware of the bargain: the Heathrow defendants certainly were, and it is a staple of advice for would-be environmental disobedients.

But this sentence throws the bargain into confusion. By acting with less restraint – and causing more damage – activists can potentially secure a jury trial. Though the potential penalties are more severe, this move typically works in favour of the activists as juries, in general, are less likely than magistrates to convict in these sorts of cases (despite the Leeds and Aberdeen verdicts).

But if magistrates are now imposing jail time, actual or suspended, for minor offences, then acting with restraint starts to appear less attractive. If you’re going to be dealt with harshly for aggravated trespass, you may as well cause criminal damage too, because that might get you a more favourable trial.

This year will see a concerted wave of climate disobedience across Europe, as activists react, post-Paris, both to the lack of a concrete action plan by Western governments and to the apparent necessity of citizen action in order to force governments do anything meaningful at all. In the UK, we should expect more climate disobedience, not less: the Heathrow 13 trial raises the stakes.