From the court of the public into the court of the law


CtrlAltShift Blog #4 - Recent campaigns at Heathrow and Aberdeen have seen climate activists learn a new set of skills and take their concerns about aviation emissions to the law courts. Plane Stupid activist Howard Balmer explains why ...

To engage with the court of law does not necessarily represent a strategic departure from engaging "the court of the public", but it can simply add another opportunity to the modern campaigners repertoire. Many actions taken by climate activists over recent years have primarily been seen as attempts to court public opinion through positive media coverage. That's what some people seem to believe anyway...

However, we know from experience that this fickle medium is just as likely to damn you as it is to celebrate your cause. Many activists want nothing to do with this aspect of the public arena and are motivated by a desire to actually reduce emissions through their actions. Shutting down an airport can actually stop the kerosene burning.

The longer an airport stays shut the more significant become the reductions in both carbon and profit for the aviation industry. When faced with the crucial need for immediate climate mitigation this has a very real benefit and is a prime motivator.

If positive media coverage leads to discussion and support then so be it, but this remains additional. Many of us do see to engage with the public arena, but at a grass-roots level; which means sharing skills, resources and experience with communities who share our concerns.

Such direct engagement has proved highly effective in helping to galvanise community campaigns across the UK and with particular significance at Heathrow where the No Third Runway campaign has been part of a broad movement involving Transition Heathrow and HACAN amongst others.

The Grow Heathrow initative has diversified to look at local food production, working with residents to rejuvenate a former-market garden shifting 30 tonnes of rubbish, growing seasonal food and hosting permaculture workshops.

The law courts present a different challenge, but one that we are quite capable of rising to. In March, Lord Justice Carnwath's ruling left the Government's aviation policy in tatters when he pointed out that the decision to build a flagship third runway at Heathrow was outdated and did not take account of the latest developments in climate change policy.

In June, the Climate 9 kept up the momentum in the Scottish courts when defending their decision to shut down Aberdeen airport. These follow the acquittal of the Kingsnorth 6 in 2008 on the grounds that they had a lawful excuse for their actions; namely that they were acting to protect property threatened by climate impacts caused by the burning of coal.

I cannot see that court appearances will ever be an activists main aim; after all, legal proceedings require that you don a suit or posh frock and may have to pay a hefty fine or serve time. However we are prepared to engage with whoever we must in order to create sustainable alternatives to greed of the fossil fuel culture.