Article published: Wednesday, February 23rd 2011
Trafford Magistrates Court yesterday delivered a guilty verdict against protestors who forced Manchester Airport to temporarily close last year as part of a protest against airport expansion and aviation emissions. The judge told the court that the trial “should not be a debate about climate change.”
In the second day of the trial the court heard from a local politician who spoke of the local democratic deficit, while a resident whose house is due to be demolished to allow for expansion of the airport told of how he felt “cheated by the process of a so-called democracy.”
All six defendants were found guilty of aggravated trespass and forced to pay prosecution costs. Five were given conditional discharge and a sixth sentenced to 80 hours of community service over 12 months.
The court had earlier heard how on 24 May 2010 the group breached a perimeter fence before forming a ‘human chain’ around the nosewheel of a civil aircraft with 252 passengers bound for Egypt, forcing the airport to close for 30 minutes before their removal. The facts were not disputed.
Delivering the judgement Justice Taff told the court that the trial “should not be a debate about climate change … [and] whether or if weather patterns are changing.” He said that contrary to their stated intention of stopping a plane and thereby reducing carbon emissions, the defendants’ actions “were designed to attract publicity to the cause [against] the expansion of Manchester Airport.” Several of the defendants had previously campaigned on the issue.
The defence argued that their actions were necessary to prevent imminent risk of death and serious injury caused by the effects of climate change contributed to by carbon emissions. Dismissing this Justice Taff found that “in this case the connection is remote and tenuous.” He remarked that in reality their actions caused more emissions as planes were diverted and airline companies decided to use more fuel in order not to fall behind schedules.
The judge added that other routes opposing expansion of the airport, such as legal challenge by judicial review, had not been exhausted. Earlier the court had heard how residents and campaign groups were unable to front the estimated £20,000 cost of such proceedings and advised to drop the case.
Over the two day trial the court heard from several scientists called by the defence as expert witnesses who spoke about the ‘catastrophic’ and imminent dangers to the environment and human life posed by climate change.
On the second and final day of the trial Dr Robin Stott, a medical doctor and specialist on the impact of climate change on public health, described a World Health Organisation (WHO) figure of 150,000 deaths a year due to climate change as “a conservative estimate.” In response to the prosecution’s claim that there was debate on the subject he said: “Yes, mainly about how bad the effects [of climate change] will be.”
Asked whether he used the term “unimaginably catastrophic” lightly in a report describing the collapse of habitats, he replied: “No, I use it with some horror.”
Stott added that the Climate and Health Council, an organisation of health professionals which he is chair, would “support the action of those who take non-violent direct action to reduce carbon emissions.”
Liberal Democrat Councillor Martin Eakins of Northenden told the court how Manchester City Council overruled councillors in Wythenshawe by giving the airport planning permission for expansion. He then claimed that Manchester City Council’s aim of 40 per cent reduction in carbon emissions by 2020 was overshadowed by its omission of the airport from its plans. The council’s rationale for this was “that without binding international treaties [for reductions on aviations emissions] they cannot act as the business would go elsewhere.”
The last witness to be summoned was Peter Johnson, resident of Hasty Lane, whose home is due to be demolished to allow for expansion of the airport freight terminal. Speaking of the inability to secure an appeal against the decision he said: “I feel cheated by the process of a so-called democracy.”
Concluding for the Crown, Miss Moore said that the reports from the scientists summoned were “full of opinion and speculative and open to debate.” Commenting on the invocation of the necessity defence she said: “It is not clear what was absolutely necessary to do: stop the plane? Stop expansion? Stop climate change?” In closing she added that Manchester Airport contributed only 0.025 per cent of total UK carbon emissions and that closing it would “have negligible effect…If this type of behaviour is deemed acceptable, where would it end: stop every car? Close every factory in the country?”
In his summary for the defence, Mr Rhodes said: “[The] necessity [defence] is the choice between the lesser of two evils. Climate change is the worse threat. It is a myth that it is a future threat. This was not an over the top action compared with the threat; if anything it was too small.”
“No matter how symbolic or ultimately futile their act they felt impelled to act…There can be no doubt that the defendants are on the right side of history.”
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