“No ifs, no buts, no new runways,” he shouted from the court steps in clipped Oxbridge tones, as lawyers, defendants and witnesses trooped inside.
This was no die-hard climate warrior, but Tim Sanderson, a former BP oil executive who spent a large proportion of his high-flying career devising how best to exploit the environment for commercial gain – from the North Sea to the sensitive Arctic offshore.
His 28-year-old daughter, Rebecca, is one of 13 people currently on trial for allegedly chaining themselves together on a Heathrow runway last summer, in protest at the proposed expansion of the airport. The judge presiding over the case is expected to deliver a verdict on charges of aggravated trespass and entering an aerodrome without permission on Monday.
In a statement read outside court by Rebecca, the group said: “We are all pleading not guilty, as our actions were a reasonable, proportionate and justified response to the scale of the problem of climate change, a problem that aviation contributes massively to as the fastest growing source of carbon emissions.”
Sitting alongside Rebecca in the living room of the family’s large, cluttered and resolutely middle class home in Acton, West London, where chickens cluck in the garden and originals, rather than prints, line the walls, Mr Sanderson admits to a sense of incredulity at his transition from oilman to activist. His “unnecessarily large” BMW Five Series is parked on the quiet street outside.
Does he worry about what former colleagues will think about this new identity? “No, not at all”. Then does he feel like a hypocrite? “Every now and then”.
At 3.30am on July 13, members of the Plane Stupid group allegedly cut a hole in a perimeter fence at Heathrow Airport before blockading a runway. The ensuing demonstration led to the cancellation of 22 flights and worldwide delays. The first Mr Sanderson and his wife Jenny (a music teacher) heard of the alleged involvement of the eldest of their four daughters was when she returned home after a night in the cells.
“It came as a complete surprise,” Mr Sanderson says. “It was a drawing of breath moment as I gradually realised the seriousness of the situation. But it turned quite rapidly to a certain reluctant pride when I saw how sincere she was.”
When I arrive early for our interview, the family are sat down to a lunch of poached eggs and mushrooms on toast, during which they discuss possible outcomes of the looming court ruling.
Like her father, who attended Merton College in Oxford, Rebecca is a first-class student. After school in Ealing (she will not say exactly which) she attended Edinburgh University and graduated in psychology. She currently lives with her partner in North Wales where she works in social science research.
Photo: Clara Molden
Her parents’ house, however, lies directly beneath the Heathrow flightpath and as we speak the steady drone of aeroplanes can be heard. “It becomes background noise after a while,” she says.
Her interest in the environment strengthened while at university. She became a vegetarian (much to her father’s good-natured disdain) and began investigating the impact of the aviation industry. “We’re in the 20-mile radius of Heathrow where a statistic shows that about 31 deaths a year happen [due to air pollution]. I was quite shocked when I found out that statistic contained my family house where I grew up.”
Her campaigning led to “difficult dinner conversations every now and then” and during our interview she sighs whenever her father defends the environmental credentials of oil multi-nationals. He remains company director of a business that trains would-be executives for the industry.
What of her own well-to-do stock, a charge often levelled at activists? “It’s an easy way to do a character assassination and make it look like you are acting because you have a privilege to act,” she says. “What characterises activists is they care about the issues, rather than have wealthy parents.”
That said, she has not shied away from her family background during the hearing. One of the character witness statements she supplied to the court was from an uncle (a high court judge). Of her father’s unexpected support she says she is “immensely proud”.
“I never expected to see my dad waving a ‘No third runway’ banner outside a court and in the public gallery cheering me on.”
It would be unfair to depict Mr Sanderson’s previous career as one entirely preoccupied with profit over the environment. After leaving Oxford with a degree in Philosophy and Physics he worked for a spell with the British Antarctic Survey, where in 1979 he published a landmark paper on ice sheet melt leading to sea level rise, which was one of the first to predict the impact of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
He returned to England to study for a PhD at Imperial College before the oil industry came calling. A few years after joining BP he recalls attending a cocktail party for young company highfliers in Moorgate and arguing with a senior executive about the scientific evidence supporting climate change. The man resorted to attacking Sanderson for driving a company car – which he had refused, he was able to counter, in preference of a bicycle.
After Rebecca was born, however, the family moved up to Aberdeen and his principles faltered. Soon he did request a company car from BP – a gleaming black BMW 316. Later appointed commercial manager of Central North Sea operations with specific responsibility for planning and performance, other financial rewards followed.
Mr Sanderson is the first to admit the dichotomy between his thoughts and deeds, but puts this down to human fallibility.
“One of the big contradictions that I see about climate change and burning fossil fuels, is that we all earnestly read about the threat and agree with it and accept the scientific evidence,” he says. “We earnestly switch off our mobile phone chargers and half fill the electric kettle assiduously – and then we go on a long distance drive or take a plane to New Zealand and burn up all those savings in a matter of minutes. It’s almost as if we’ve got two brains that don’t communicate with each other. I felt like that then and still do to a certain extent.”
What prompted Mr Sanderson’s change of tack was being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1995. He left BP two years later to set up his own company and as we speak the faint tremors of the degenerative condition are apparent. “It gives me some restrictions and freedoms,” he says. “It’s enabled me to do things I really wanted to do.”
One of those things is to reboot his own environmental concerns. “I find the young generation has a sincerity and zeal lacking from my own generation,” he says. “After rationing, we were the first who had the freedom to do anything we wanted. That led to a glorious feeling of freedom in the Sixties, followed by the yuppie era in the Seventies and Eighties of conspicuous over-spending and extravagance.
“I think the young generation can show us you can believe something and act in the way you believe you should act. I feel very strongly, with my generation, that we all feel one way but [act] another.”
Mr Sanderson likes to equate the Heathrow protest to the scene in E. Nesbit’s The Railway Children, where the youngsters step on to the tracks and wave red bloomers at a passing train to avert it from disaster. In the following chapter, the children are praised for their actions despite trespassing on the line.
Whether the judge agrees with him remains to be seen. But whatever happens to the Heathrow 13, the ranks of future airport expansion protests will be bolstered by one fruity voice – from the twilight, the oilman cometh.
Supportive protest outside start of Plane Stupid’s #Heathrow13 trial for Heathrow incursion in July
The trial of the 13 members of Plane Stupid, who broke into Heathrow airport on 13th July, started at Willesden Magistrates Court on 18th. They are charged with Aggravated Trespass and entering a security restricted area. Their protest caused the cancellation of some 25 flights, which saved an estimated 250 tonnes of CO2. In doing so, they argue that helped to save lives in the Global South, by making a small cut in the emissions that fuel climate chaos. All 13 are pleading not guilty, and say their action was reasonable and justified in the climate context. They say “Climate defence is not an offence!” The judge hearing the case, by herself, is Judge Wright. The prosecution has been brought by the CPS. There was a large gathering outside the court, for the start of the trial, with many groups expressing their solidarity. This started with a short statement by the #Heathrow13 on their defence, before they entered the court to repeated chants of “No ifs, No Buts, No new runways!” Judge Wright declared that the fact that aviation fuel is linked to climate change is indisputable. The judge is looking at two issues: 1. Did the 13 genuinely believe their actions were necessary to prevent death or serious illness? And 2. Whether objectively their actions were reasonable and proportionate in order to prevent death or serious illness.