Heathrow 13 – the justification for their action, and reaction to the verdicts
Guilty verdicts have been handed down against 13 climate activists protesting against the expansion of Heathrow airport in the UK. The Heathrow 13 were on trial for climate change direct action civil disobedience occupying a runway of Heathrow in July 2015. The legal defence of the Heathrow 13 was based on the law of necessity in directly preventing emissions which contribute to climate change and significant numbers of deaths arising from climate and pollution impacts from civil aviation. Judge Deborah Wright told the defendants to prepare for the likelihood of an unusually harsh sentence on February 24th, and possibly to expect 3 months in prison. Heathrow expansion is the big test of the UK government’s seriousness about climate change, particularly in the wake of the December 2015 UN Paris agreement, hoping to limit global temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius and aspire to only 1.5 degrees. Heathrow represents 48% of UK emissions from aviation and is already “the airport with the highest CO2 contribution in the world in terms of combined international and domestic flights” This puts Heathrow expansion at odds with the UK Government’s commitment to avoiding a ‘well below’ 2’C target. Below are a selection of comments on the verdict on the Heathrow 13 and their belief that their action was necessary.
Runway Occupation on Trial – Verdicts
Plane Stupid press release
London – Today in Willesden Magistrates Court, the thirteen Plane Stupid activists who occupied Heathrow’s north runway for six hours on the 13th of July last year were all convicted of aggravated trespass and being airside without lawful authority.
The Judge has asked them all to return in 3 weeks on the 24th February for sentencing and has advised all defendants to prepare for immediate custodial sentences.
The thirteen defendants released the following statement, in response to their convictions:
“Today’s judgement demonstrates that the legal system does not yet recognise that climate defence is not an offence. We took action because we saw that it was sorely needed. When the democratic, legislative and processes have failed, it takes the actions of ordinary people to change them.”
“We are very grateful for all the messages of support and solidarity we have received from all over the world, and are immensely proud of the action we took to combat emissions from aviation. Climate change and air pollution from Heathrow are killing people now, and the government’s response is to spend millions making the problem bigger. As long as airport expansion is on the agenda, Plane Stupid will be here. We’re in it for the long haul.“
Most of the defence’s witness evidence was not heard in court, and none of the witnesses were allowed to appear in court. John McDonnell was not heard in full due to the Judge having already accepted the points he was addressing, and therefore ruling the statement irrelevant.
Her ruling on John McDonnell’s evidence is available here –
And John McDonnell’s full statement is available here –
Statements from three local residents from the Heathrow area were read out, detailing the debilitating and life-threatening medical conditions they were suffering from as a consequence of living near to the airport.
Character references for the defendants were also read out in court, from a variety of public figures including High Court Judge Peter Jackson and a long list of barristers and solicitors.
Alice Bowes-Larkin, one of the UK’s leading climate scientists, and a specialist in the climate impacts of aviation, submitted a statement which was read to the court. It mentioned that Heathrow “is the airport with the highest CO2 contribution in the world in terms of combined international and domestic flights” and “this puts Heathrow expansion at odds with the UK Government’s commitment to avoiding a ‘well below’ 2’C target, unless a major programme of efficiency and biofuel development are delivered in tandem.”
Sian Berry, the Green Party’s candidate for the London mayoral elections, came to court to support the defendants, despite her evidence having been ruled as inadmissible by the judge.
Sian Berry’s statement is available here –
George Monbiot’s statement was also ruled inadmissible, and is available here –
Writing on how the activists will be seen in the future, he said:
“They will be regarded not as outlaws and subversives, but as democratic heroes. Succeeding generations, struggling with the impacts that our government’s failures to take action on climate change bequeathed them, are likely to be amazed that they could have been seen in any other light.”
In all, of the ten defence witnesses, only four had their evidence allowed, and none were permitted to appear in court.
The runway occupation, under the banner of anti-aviation expansion group Plane Stupid and the first on a Heathrow runway, lasted six hours and delayed or cancelled dozens of flights. The activists, who are all pleading not guilty, are accused of aggravated trespass and trespassing airside without authority.
The defendants are Sheila Menon, 43, of Hackney, east London, Rebecca Holly Sanderson, 27, of Machynlleth, Powys; Richard Steven Hawkins, 32, and Kara Lauren Moses, 31, both of Heol y Doll, Machynlleth; Ella Gilbert, 23, of Finsbury Park, north London; Melanie Strickland, 32, of Waltham Forest, north-east London; Danielle Louise Paffard, 28, of Peckham, south-east London; Graham Edward James Thompson, 42, of Hackney, north-east London; Cameron Joseph Kaye, 23, Edward Thacker, 26, Alistair Craig Tamlit, 27, and Sam Sender, 23, all of West Drayton, west London; and Robert Anthony Basto, 67, of Reigate, Surrey.
Greenpeace comment on the verdict:
Commenting on the guilty verdict handed down to 13 Plane Stupid activists following a protest against plans for a third runway at Heathrow, Greenpeace UK executive director John Sauven said:
“Today, we stand in solidarity with the activists who have put their liberty on the line to protect us from the health and climate damage a new runway will cause. These campaigners have been found guilty in a court of law, but it’s pro-expansion politicians and aviation bosses that history will put in the dock – and the judgement won’t be kind. A third runway at Heathrow will exacerbate the air pollution crisis that’s already costing thousands of lives every year. And just weeks after the government signed a major climate deal in Paris, these activists are reminding us of the crucial international commitments we have made and should fulfil.”
It’s outrageous to send peaceful protesters to jail
My statement today in reaction to the news that thirteen Plane Stupid campaigners have been convicted and may face jail for peaceful direct action at Heathrow last summer:
“Right-thinking people across the country – even those who favour airport expansion – will be shocked and disappointed with the prospect of prison sentences for selfless, peaceful protestors.
“I was in court to support them last week and heard the many character references that were given, showing how these thirteen brave people are conscientious, caring and kind people whose longstanding commitment to the cause of stopping catastrophic climate change led them to take this action.
“By stopping the emissions from Heathrow for a morning they made a real difference, and their actions were only necessary because of the betrayal we have seen from the Prime Minister, who promised no new runways before he was elected, but has now made plans to expand the airports around London anyway.
“Many millions of lives are at stake if we don’t keep climate change within safe limits, and many thousands of people die already every year in London from air pollution. We should commend not condemn the people who are willing to take action when democracy fails.
“Putting people in prison will not make the protests or the case against airport expansion go away.
“The government started jailing peaceful road protesters in the 1990s and this just created more support for their cause. In the end that road-building programme was cancelled and I believe that there will be more campaigners and more protests as a result of today’s judgement – and that eventually the same will happen with the proposed runways.”
Green Party MP Caroline Lucas
Caroline said: “Sending the Heathrow 13 to prison would be utterly unwarranted.
“They took a principled and non-violent stand against the colossal environmental cost of expanding an airport that already breaches air pollution laws – yet they’re being treated is if they are somehow a danger to society.
“The real danger we face are the toxic fumes emitted by airports and the looming threat of catastrophic climate change.
“Sending these committed activists to jail would be deeply unjust.” Link
John McDonnell barred from giving evidence at ‘Heathrow 13’ trial
From a blog by Ella Gilbert, one of the activists found guilty;
Anti Third Runway Activists Get Their Day In Court
Last July, I was part of a Plane Stupid
direct action on Heathrow’s Northern runway. The action
was part of long-running campaign against the third runway at Heathrow, and against UK airport expansion more generally.
Today, we were found guilty of aggravated trespass and entering a security-restricted zone of an airport. Sentencing is expected on February 24th.
We took action because we saw that it was sorely needed. When laws are unjust, ordinary people must take action to change them. Like the ‘Delta 5’, who were recently charged with stopping a coal train in the US, we acted to minimise the climate impacts of a hugely polluting industry. Although the legal system does not yet recognise that climate defence is not an offence, in the words of Judge Wright, we have “already won”.
Last year, on the 1st July, the long-awaited Airports Commission report was released, recommending the construction of a third runway at Heathrow. If the government acts on this recommendation (which appears likely) it will represent another massive U-turn on their part: in their 2010 pre-election manifesto, David Cameron’s Tories asserted that they would not back a third runway at Heathrow, “no ifs, no buts”. This promise was made at the height of the campaign against a third runway when there was significant pressure to oppose further development at Heathrow. Now in power, they clearly realise airport expansion is still an unpopular topic for Londoners. The decision is evidently a political one, with little consideration of the environmental impacts or necessity for more runways.
Despite claims that airport capacity in the Southeast is at its limit, in a 2012 Parliamentary Transport Committee meeting, the chiefs of four of the region’s largest airports gave evidence to the effect that there is spare capacity at many airports in the UK. The final decision has been delayed until after the London elections in May so as not to hamper Conservative mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith’s chances, as he represents the Richmond Park & North Kingston constituency which sits under the flight path.
The environmental case against airport expansion – not just at Heathrow – is clear. The sector is stubbornly difficult to decarbonise and efficiency savings are far outstripped by increasing demand. If it were a country, the aviation industry would be the 7th most polluting in the world. According to DfT figures, aviation accounts for 6% of UK CO2 emissions but this figure is misleading because it doesn’t account for the amplified effects of emitting pollutants at cruising altitude, where they are much less readily removed and have more significant climate effects. Add to this the emissions of non-CO2 pollutants and a more accurate picture emerges, though policy-makers are still reluctant to accept that aviation is damaging to local health and global climate.
Aviation and shipping have so far been the elephant in the room when devising climate legislation, both national and international. Excluded from the 2008 Climate Change Actand Kyoto agreements, the trend has been followed at every climate summit to date – andParis is no exception. Although included in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme from 2012, only flights that both originate and arrive in the European Economic Area are included – or around 11% of global aviation emissions. The International Civil Aviation Organisation, the specialised UN agency that regulates the aviation industry, makes noise about efficiency improvements and climate change targets but achieves very little. Those in power are taking very little action to tackle aviation’s significant contribution to climate change, so we must.
An incredible demo on Monday 20th morning attended by such prominent figures as Natalie Bennett got us off to a flying start (excuse the pun), and support has been pouring in from all quarters. It’s been incredible, and we are very grateful for all the statements of solidarity we have received. We have been lauded as heroes and defenders of democracy, and I think the level of praise has been unexpected for all of us.
We are, in the words of defendant – and fellow ‘hooligan’ – Mel Strickland, “13 ordinary people who find ourselves in an impossible situation…with the colossal problem of climate change. We don’t have the power, influence or resources that Heathrow does and there is no political will to change things via legal procedures.”
Given the immovability of the government on the matter, we were all faced with a choice – to do nothing, or to take direct action.
The Heathrow 13 threatened with jail sentences stand on the right side of history
The past teaches us that epic struggles against powerful interests cannot be won without some people putting their freedom on the line
By Leo Murray (Independent)
If a third runway is built at Heathrow we will have no hope of meeting our legally binding carbon targets. Meanwhile research published in 2012 estimated that Heathrow is already responsible for levels of air pollution that contribute to around 50 premature deaths
each year – a number that could treble if a third runway is built.
This is the context in which Plane Stupid activists were compelled to intervene, by placing their bodies in the way of aeroplanes at Heathrow airport last summer. When democratic legislative processes have failed, it falls to ordinary citizens to act to protect the public interest and challenge the status quo. These brave souls were acting in all of our long-term best interests when they cut through the fence at Heathrow last summer.
It takes a special sort of person to make this kind of commitment and sacrifice. The Heathrow 13 are just such people. History will judge them kindly.
If the judge goes ahead with her threat, the Heathrow 13 will be Britain’s first ever climate prisoners. But as the long as the state continues to fail so abysmally in its duty of care, they won’t be the last
Solidarity with the courageous activists opposing airport expansion in France and the UK
Blog by 350.org
We stand in solidarity with the activists in France and the UK, who now face evictions and jail sentences for standing up to protect the climate during protests against the expanding aviation industry. They took bold steps where governments have stumbled, acting out of principle to try and stop the increase in pollution to our air and atmosphere by an industry whose reckless expansion poses a grave threat to our climate.
Today, courts in each country simultaneously announced verdicts against the #Heathrow13 and 11 families from Notre-Dame-des-Landes (near Nantes) who have taken a peaceful stand against airport expansion. We are grateful for their dedication and shocked by the unjust and disproportionate verdicts that fail to take into account the overwhelming threat posed by climate change.
The suggestion by the court in the UK that jail time for this peaceful protest is “almost inevitable” will only re-invigorate the debate around the need for a 3rd runway at Heathrow and aviation expansion across Europe. It also raises the question of whether harsh sentences could be used to deter future dissent over increased air traffic.
The verdict refers to the costs incurred by a polluting industry as a result of the protest, but doesn’t recognise the urgent need to protect people from the economic and human costs of climate change.
In France, the court confirmed the evictions of eleven families to build a new airport in Notre-Dame-des-Landes, close to Nantes. Farmers and environmentalists have been fighting the planned airport for forty years, occupying the area and mobilising tens of thousands in protest. That fight will surely continue.
In the words of the Heathrow 13: “When the democratic, legislative and political processes have failed, it takes the actions of ordinary people to change them.”
The Flight of Reason in the Face of Airport Expansion
By Zion Lights,
in the Huffington Post, 26.1.2016