On September 10 a British jury acquitted six Greenpeace protesters who were on trial for trying to shut down a coal-fired power station on the grounds that they were trying to stop global warming.
Last year, the protesters climbed the chimneystack of the Kingsnorth power station, in Kent, to paint "Gordon, bin it" (as in, "bin coal") on the side, but were arrested before they could complete the task. They were charged with causing criminal damage equivalent to around $80,000 – the costs cleaning the 200 metre stack.
However, in a majority verdict, the jury in Maidstone Crown Court found that the protesters had a "lawful excuse" for their acts, because they were trying to protect property that would be damaged by climate change, including parts of Kent at risk from sea level rise, parts of Greenland, the Pacific island of Tuvalu, coastal areas of Bangladesh and the city of New Orleans.
Under the "lawful excuse" defence, a lesser act which would otherwise be illegal, can be justified on the grounds that it is preventing a greater wrong to another – much like kicking down a door to put out a fire in a house. The Greenpeace activists successfully argued that their actions were "proportionate" to the risks of climate change, and therefore not illegal.
The jury was told that the E.ON-owned power station – a target for protests in this year's UK Climate Camp – emits around 20,000 tons of carbon dioxide every year – the same amount as the 30 least-polluting countries in the world.
The court heard from a wide variety of witnesses – including the Conservative Party's environmental adviser, millionaire environmentalist Zac Goldsmith, and an Inuit from Greenland. NASA's leading climate expert, James Hansen, who warned the world of climate change over twenty years ago, was flown in from the United States to testify to the immediate danger and scale of human-induced climate change.
Hansen also calculated that, of over a million species that would be made extinct because of climate change, the power station itself would be responsible for around 400.
Goldsmith, adviser to the Conservative Party and editor of the Ecologist magazine, pointed out the hypocrisy of calling for countries like India and China to cut their emissions while Britain built new coal-fired power stations.
Goldsmith also told the jury: "Legalities aside, I suppose if a crime is intended to prevent much larger crimes, I think then a lot of people would consider that as justified and a good thing."
After the verdict, the protesters were jubilant. "This verdict marks a tipping point for the climate change movement," said defendant Ben Stewart. "If jurors from the heart of Middle England say it's legitimate for a direct action group to shut down a coal-fired power station because of the harm it does to our planet, then where does that leave government energy policy? We have the clean technologies at hand to power our economy, it's time we turned to them instead of coal."
Hansen echoed these sentiments when he told the jury, "We are in grave peril. Somebody needs to step forward and say there has to be a moratorium, draw a line in the sand and say no more coal-fired power stations."
Despite this, and despite having admitted the danger of climate change, the British government has advanced plans to allow new coal-fired power stations, including one right next to that at Kingsnorth, to be built, without any so-called "clean coal" technology.
While "clean coal" is decades away from being viable, if ever, there is a perverse logic to the policy, with the government hoping that the unabated pollution from coal stations will force up the price of carbon emission permits, encouraging the market to invest in carbon-capture.
The Kingsnorth legal victory was a welcome victory in breaking the coal addiction that is a major cause of climate change. There is no guarantee, however, that the case won't be appeal and overturned by a higher court.
The true tipping point in the struggle against climate change will come when enough people decide to force an end to the polluting ways on government and big business, and demand the immediate introduction of renewable energy technology.