Last week a UK jury decided that the threat of global warming justifies breaking the law; or at least they condoned the painting of the word ‘Gordon’ on someone else’s chimney stack.
The jury at Maidstone Crown Court cleared six Greenpeace activists of criminal damage accepting defence arguments that they had a “lawful excuse” when they vandalised the chimney stack because the carbon dioxide emissions from the Kingsnorth power plant are harmful to the environment of the Hoo Peninsula.
Under the Criminal Damage Act 1971 damage is condoned if it will prevent even greater damage.
This is surely an unusual interpretation of a law meant to allow, for example, someone to break down the door to a burning building?
It does suggest the pubic are very concerned about global warming and see a link between a protest against a power station and saving the environmental. Furthermore it creates precedence, at least in the UK, the idea that it is OK to destroy property to save the environment from climate change.
Writing in The UK Independent Geoffrey Lean claimed that:
“The jury in effect sat through a six-and-a-half-day seminar on global warming, in a forum where lying was illegal, and every statement could be challenged by top barristers. And, at the end, they decided that the danger was so immediate and serious that it justified taking extreme – and normally illegal – action against it.”
NASA’s James Hansen gave evidence in defence of the Greenpeace activists at the trial and according to Kent News when asked what his message to Prime Minister Gordon Brown would be, Dr Hansen replied:
“I would ask him to make a clear public statement for a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants that do not capture CO2.”
It is unlikely the case will have significant implications for activism in Australia.
In New South Wales (and all other States of Australia), juries are only available in criminal case for serious offences (indictable offences) such as sexual assault, murder, armed robbery and other serious crimes against a person. Since graffiti is a summary offence that would be heard by a magistrate, it is unlikely that a magistrate would find climate change a justification for the offence.
Secondly, the legal argument that graffiti to prevent climate change is damage to prevent greater damage in the future is not a very good legal argument. The main problem is that it is just as likely that the graffiti will make no difference what so ever to climate change that it fails to prevent the future damage.
Thirdly, in NSW criminal law, there is not similar provision that damage to property is permissible to prevent greater harm. If a similar case was brought in NSW, the magistrate would be likely to rule that the evidence on whether climate change is damage, which would be key to the case, would be ruled to be irrelevant and dismissed.
The damage to the Kingsnorth power station was estimated at £35,000.