Last updated: April 2016
Ok so your home is powered by a green energy provider, you’ve installed solar panels and, reluctantly, you’ve even committed to cut the amount of flying you do. But would you really be prepared to go to jail in a bid to save the planet from meltdown?
This was the very real prospect facing environmental activist Graham Thompson earlier this year when, along with 12 other protesters, he faced spending time behind bars for protesting against the planned third runway at Heathrow last summer.
“We knew that we’d be prosecuted but It was never our intention to go to jail.”
Thompson and his colleagues from the campaign group Plane Stupid, narrowly avoided prison and instead was given a suspended sentence.
So what did the action actually achieve?
“Our big goal was to put the issue of climate change back into the debate about the expansion of Heathrow which we felt was central,” says Thompson.
With a media scrum camped outside the courtroom where the defendants were being tried, the Heathrow 13, as they are known, certainly achieved their goal of blanket media coverage.
Of course there’s a long history of social and political movements engaging in civil disobedience to force through change and make authorities and governments take notice, from the Suffragettes right through to the peace activists of today.
CND Outreach worker and former Ethical Consumer researcher Matt Fawcett:
“For decades CND campaigners have practised civil disobedience and gone to jail, from the original peace marches in the ‘60s to activists at the Faslane Peace Camp in Scotland”.
“The crucial thing about any trial involving peace activists is that it provides them with a platform to speak out and get their message across in a way that’s too often denied to them by the mainstream media”.
Fawcett risked a jail sentence himself by taking part in a protest at the Drax power station in Yorkshire in 2008.
Blocking oil in the USA
Being able to present the reasons for their act of civil disobedience in a courtroom is exactly what a group of American climate activists will be able to do later this year. In an unprecedented move, the presiding judge will allow the defendants to argue that their actions of blockading a train transporting oil were necessary to prevent the greater harm of climate change.
Tim DeChristopher from pionerring US-based Climate Disobediance Center:
“Like all civil disobedience, this new wave of climate disobedience is an inherent critique of the moral authority of government”.
Having served 21 months in jail for single-handedly protesting against the development of an oil field in the US, DeChristopher has gone on to gain an international media profile as a passionate advocate of civil disobedience in the fight against climate change.
“The intent of civil disobedience is to arouse the conscience of a community in order to build the kind of public pressure that’s necessary to resist the corporate control of our government”.
“We hold the power right here to create our vision of a healthy and just world if we are willing to make the sacrifices to make it happen,” he says. “Climate change, and all the other injustices we are experiencing are not being driven solely by the coal industry, lobbyists, or by the failure of our politicians”. “They’re also happening because of the cowardice of the environmental movement.”
Now climate activists are gearing up for a month of global civil disobedience this May.
“Climate change is with us now and the need to act has never been more urgent,” say campaigners writing on the website breakfree2016.org and who believe that civil disobedience is now critical in the defence of the planet from the threat of climate change:
“Our actions must reflect the scale and urgency of this crisis in a way that governments can no longer ignore.”