Ratcliffe-on-Soar Power Station
Words: Will McCallum. Photo: Phil McIver via flickr

Guilty of conspiracy to commit aggravated trespass: so states the unanimous jury verdict.  Fifteen days of court and the twenty defendants who made a plea of necessity following their attempt to shut down Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station are now facing high fines and suspended prison sentences.

Before writing any further, I must now declare a vested interest in the court case that may bias my analysis:  I live on this planet – and I care deeply about its future and the future of its inhabitants.

Over the past three weeks I have followed the case closely.  I have observed how patiently and confidently the defendants have dealt with the glib, uninformed, and often downright rude comments of Felicity Gerry, the prosecution’s barrister. I have read how defendants, one after another, supported by climate scientists and politicians, in what must constitute the longest ever lecture on the environment, informed the jury of the devastating effects of climate change.  I have witnessed how they related this information directly to the role of coal-fired power stations. Finally, I have heard how they spent months planning an action to shut down Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station, the UK’s third largest single emitter of CO2; and how this action was so much more than one of protest, so much more than a media stunt: shutting down the power station for a week, thereby preventing 150,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions was going to save lives.  Ben Steward, one of the defendants, said today: “we did this to save human lives. I can’t tell you if the lives we would have saved would have been my relatives or your relatives, but they would have been somebody’s relatives.”

The jury listened to evidence from Dr Roberts, Professor of Epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene, explain clearly the World Health Organisation’s estimate that 150,000 people are already dying each year as a result of man-made climate change (a conservative estimate that doesn’t fully take into account freak weather conditions that may be a result of climate change).  The jury heard Jim Hansen explain why leaving coal in the ground would solve 80% of the problem and how over its lifetime, Ratcliffe-on-Soar would be responsible for the extinction of over 400 species.  And the jury watched Caroline Lucas MP explain how the government is nowhere near reaching its target of an 80% reduction in its emissions by 2050 (a figure 10% short of what is actually necessary to prevent a rise of over 2 degrees).

But yet: Guilty of conspiracy to commit aggravated trespass.  The defendants’ plea of necessity, their claim that by shutting down the power station they would save lives, which must surely supersede the relatively minor crime of aggravated trespass, was ignored.  The jury’s fears that shutting down the power station for a week would affect emergency services and the national grid were proved groundless.  The judge countered their concern that a plea of necessity in the UK could not work if the life saved was outside the British Isles.  And yet, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary they still passed a unanimous verdict that the defendants were in the wrong.

Why?  I can only presume that this verdict represents the public’s inability to recognise that our legal system does not represent absolute justice; that there is justice that goes beyond the law, and that shutting down a power station to save lives is a just act. Last week I heard a wonderful line:

“When injustice becomes legal, resistance becomes duty.”

When those who have the power in our society allow a company such as E.ON to continue using coal purely because it is the most profitable, with no concern for the environmental consequences, and then punish those who are shouldering the burden of responsibility by standing in the way of such crimes – then injustice has become legal.

I have often heard climate change likened to a car, hurtling towards a cliff at breakneck speed, the closer it comes and the faster it gets, the harder it will be to stop.  By stopping 150,000 tonnes of CO2 being emitted, these activists were putting on the brakes.  Getting Cheryl Cole to wear second-hand clothes, campaigning for ‘Meat-Free Mondays’, using a compost toilet at a festival, all suggestions put forward by the prosecution:  nothing more than changing the radio station.  As the defendants have written in their final statement:  “Burning coal has to stop.”

And so, finally, in solidarity with those in Nottingham I say:  Let us support those being sentenced in whatever way we can. If these twenty are unable to take further action following the judge’s sentence on Friday, then let twenty more fill their shoes.  Let us challenge those roaming the corridors of power to actually start working in our best interests, and if they don’t (which, according to history, they won’t), then let us, like those twenty, and the 94 others also arrested the night before the action, take the responsibility upon ourselves to bring about the kind of justice we want to see.  The kind of justice that might include challenging the law to take necessary action, that values saving lives over trespass, that values people over property and that values the future over short-term profit.

To read more see www.ratcliffeontrial.org