UPDATE: None of the Heathrow 13 is going to prison! They have been handed six-week suspended sentences in addition to 100+ hours of community service.
Tomorrow (Wednesday, 24th February) thirteen individuals who blockaded a runway to protest against expanding Heathrow airport are likely to be sent to prison, which would make them the first climate activists to receive a prison sentence in the UK.
It would be symptomatic of the overwhelming influence of corporate interests over our democracies to send peaceful protestors who take action for the greater good to prison, while tolerating the conduct of those that drive us into climate chaos for private gain. Yet, as the climate crisis unfolds, more and more people are preparing for climate disobedience. The promises of the Paris climate agreement require an immediate and massive shift away from burning fossil fuels. There is however a major gap between the words of politicians and their plans for action. It’s now up to ordinary citizens to take action to keep the coal, oil and gas that is cooking our climate in the ground.
What does it take to become the UK’s first climate prisoners? In July last year, a commission tasked by the UK government recommended expanding Heathrow. Two weeks later, thirteen individuals from the direct action network Plane Stupid peacefully blockaded a runway at Heathrow airport in protest at the expanding aviation industry, which causes deaths from air pollution and climate change. Their occupation lasted six hours and delayed or cancelled dozens of flights.
The ‘Heathrow 13’ included a 68-year-old atmospheric physicist and 350.org UK Divestment campaigner Danielle Paffard. In court they argued that they feel a moral responsibility to take action as ordinary citizens where democratic, legislative and political processes fail to address the threat the aviation industry poses to the climate and people’s health.
Thirty-two-year-old Melanie Strickland who works for a health charity in London said:
“When the political system is so fundamentally flawed that it is unresponsive to an issue of colossal international importance, such as climate change, then every citizen has a responsibility to act. There is a basic human, moral and social duty to take action to prevent this disaster and to wake people up.”
Aviation currently accounts for about 2-5% of global emissions but the industry’s rapid expansion could see that number jump to 22% by 2050, according to a recent study by the European Parliament. It is one of the fastest growing sources of emissions, yet aviation remains largely exempt from emission reduction requirements and enjoys tax breaks that keep air travel costs artificially low.
A paragraph on emissions from aviation and shipping in a draft version of the Paris text was taken out of the final agreement and new rules by the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization are much too weak to have a meaningful impact. Besides fueling climate change, a third runway at Heathrow will cause 150 premature deaths a year by 2030, according to an MIT estimate.
Even though the judge recognised that the Heathrow 13 were ‘principled people’ and that Heathrow is in breach of EU emission regulations, she found them guilty of ‘aggravated trespass’ and warned them to expect immediate jail sentences when they come back to court on 24th February.
Aggravated trespass is a criminal offence that was introduced under the Thatcher government with the aim of curbing protests. In 2013, a UN independent expert recommended that the UK review its public order legislation, in particular with ‘great concern about the use of aggravated trespass against people staging legitimate protests’. A criminal law specialist described the possibility of a custodial sentence as ‘extremely surprising’. Ten of the Heathrow 13 have no prior convictions.
Meanwhile in France…
In France, a 40-year battle against plans for Europe’s biggest airport in Notre-Dame-des-Landes (NDDL), about 25 km from Nantes is heating up in the aftermath of the Paris agreement. A petition arguing that the airport is not compatible with the Paris climate agreement and urging the French government to intervene gathered over 11,000 signatures in just 24 hours.
The battle against the airport at Notre-Dame-des-Landes has grown into the most iconic fight of the French climate and social justice movement. The airport project is seen as symptomatic of a system of unnecessary expansion that serves the economic interests of a minority at the expense of local communities, farmers’ livelihoods, the environment and the climate.
Hundreds of people have occupied the site for years. Recently, eleven farmer families announced that they will resist an eviction order and are prepared to risk imprisonment. Twenty-thousand people blockaded the ring road around Nantes in January in a protest against the project. Many more are expected to join the next big mobilisation on Saturday, 27th February.
The anti-aviation fights in France and the UK heat up as groups around the globe prepare for a series of mass mobilisations that will disrupt iconic fossil fuel projects on six continents in May. Whatever the sentencing of the Heathrow 13 will turn out to be tomorrow, it will only mark the onset of a new wave of climate disobedience. Sign up on breakfree2016.org to be kept posted on the plans for May!