Last Thursday I spent in the City of London Magistrates’ Court: a grim and grimy-looking place among the great glass buildings of the City. I was charged with having breached Section 14 of the 1986 Public Order Act for having sat in a road in Parliament Square last September during an Extinction Rebellion protest. None of this was any fun at all – although it turned out, when we got to watch the body cam footage of PC Andrew Gibson, the man who arrested me, that the actor Mark Rylance was standing just behind me. Which made it a) a bit like one of those photos in which a ghost turns out to have been in the room; b) very slightly like The Trial of the Chicago 7, in that it had Mark Rylance in it. Anyway, I said I wasn’t guilty and they said I was, so I was. When I got back to Brecon Alice asked a) if there was a judge with a wig, which there wasn’t (two magistrates, both with their own hair); b) what it was like, which was a bit like being sent to the headmistress. Alice nodded sagely. I went to court and gave a not guilty plea largely to be able to read my defence statement. It was a struggle to get through it. The whole business was an emotional mangle. Anyway, I would like people to understand why I and others get ourselves in these situations, so my statement is below for anyone who is interested:
I would like first to thank the court for its time and for this opportunity to speak.
My name, under regular circumstances, is Tom. I am forty-five years old: a writer and a tutor in Creative Writing. I have two parents of retirement age. I have two children of primary school age. I am a member of Extinction Rebellion.
One problem with speaking about the climate and ecological crisis is that it impacts everyone and everything. It is basically impossible, through focusing on a single aspect or related event to give any real sense of its extent, its severity, its interconnectedness.
I would, however, like briefly to try.
At present, due to human emissions of greenhouse gases – principally, carbon dioxide and methane – the average global temperature is about 1.2°C above the pre-industrial level. This has many ramifications, but among them is that the world’s coral reefs have experienced a series of extreme heat events, as a result of which about 50% have been irrecoverably bleached – that is to say, the corals, the animals which create and maintain these structures, have been killed. When global temperatures reach 1.5°C above the pre-industrial average then 70-90% of corals will have been killed. When global temperatures reach 2°C above the pre-industrial average, excepting some scientific miracle, 99% of the world’s corals – effectively, all of them – will have been lost.
These are figures from the Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C published in October 2018 by the IPCC (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change).
Simply in itself, to me at least, this is horrifying. Corals appear in the fossil record more than 400 million years ago. They have evolved into their current, reef-building form over the past 25 million years – and, within two or three human generations, we will have destroyed them all.
But corals, of course, are more than just corals. Their reefs are the basis for some of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet – rivalling the rainforests. Their reefs directly support at least a million other species – from algae and sponges, through crabs, lobsters, sea urchins and molluscs, to fully 25% of all species of marine fish.
And this wealth of life, of course, does not exist in isolation. It extends into a multitude of food chains, which can spread far from the reef itself. Take Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, which, in 2020, suffered its third mass bleaching event in five years. Besides such species as I have already mentioned, the Great Barrier Reef supports thirty species of cetacean, including dugongs, humpback whales and Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins; it supports six species of sea turtle; it supports about 125 species of skate, stingray and shark, including the whale shark. It supports, to a significant extent, 215 species of bird, including the roseate tern and the white-bellied sea eagle.
There are the fisheries too: fisheries whose food chains originate in coral reefs and which,
to quote the IUCN – the International Union for Conservation of Nature – “directly support over 500 million people worldwide, mostly in poor countries”.
And then there is coral reef tourism, whose global value the journal Marine Policy has estimated at nearly US$36 billion per year. And, more critically still, there is the issue of coastal protection. As the World Wildlife Fund’s 2018 Living Planet Report explains: “Nearly 200 million people depend on coral reefs to protect them from storm surges and waves.” As the corals die, so their reefs collapse, so that protection is permanently lost: a protection that will be all the more needed over the coming years.
Because, of course, due to global heating, to thermal expansion and the melting of the ice caps, principally those of Greenland and Antarctica, the seas are rising. A paper published recently in the journal Nature shows that, even if the world were to meet the ambitions set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement and hold global temperatures at less than 2°C above the pre-industrial average, melt water from the Antarctic Ice Sheet alone will cause a sea level rise of about two and half metres.
And “increasing sea temperatures”, as the Met Office puts it, “increase the intensity of tropical storms”. That is to say, we will see still more intense tropical storms of the sort we have seen so often in recent years: the likes of Hurricane Harvey, which devastated Texas and Louisiana in 2017, and Cyclone Idai, which struck Southern Africa in 2019 and caused a storm surge of 4.4m in the Mozambican city of Beira, home to half a million people and, for what it’s worth, the only place outside of Wales I have ever loved enough to contemplate settling. The surge led to flooding that was visible from space. It destroyed 80% of homes and infrastructure and required the rescue of 100,000 people. With winds peaking at 120mph, thousands were injured by flying debris, while over a thousand were killed, including some decapitated by the metal sheets torn from the roofs of houses…
And given that, according to the IPCC’s 2019 Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, those “extreme sea level events that [occurred] once per century in the recent past [will] occur at least once per year at many locations by 2050 in all scenarios” – when such places as Beira become functionally uninhabitable, whether due to sea level rise, extreme weather or a collapse in food supply, where are their people supposed to go? Because what I have outlined so far hardly touches on the crisis we face. I have not mentioned the droughts or the desertification; or the floods, such as those we experienced last year in South Wales, my home, where, according to Professor Liz Bentley of the Royal Meteorological Society, we can expect to see rainfall increase by 50% over the next decade; or the wildfires, such as those which have, this past year, devastated Australia, California, the Amazon, Indonesia, Argentina, the Arctic and Siberia – all of which will drastically curtail living space and the availability of food and fresh water for a global population expected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050… I have said nothing of air pollution, which a recent report estimates to have caused 8.7 million deaths in 2018 alone. I have hardly touched on the mass extinction of species already underway, nor on the other impacts arising from our relentless destruction of natural habitats, such as the transmission of zoonotic diseases like HIV/AIDS, bird flu, swine flu, Sars, Mers, Ebola and Covid-19. I have said almost nothing of the racial component: the fact that this catastrophe is, in its most severe effects, being visited first on countries of the Global South: on countries such as Mozambique, whose greenhouse gas emissions per capita are almost a twentieth of ours here in the UK…
My son Edwyn is 11 years old. Edwyn is a kind, sharp, long-limbed boy, athletic in a way that I never have been, taller than I was at his age. Edwyn… In the mornings, Edwyn likes to get up before me, to creep downstairs and hide to make me jump when I come for my tea. This amuses him endlessly. After this, in the spring and the summer, the two of us will often go and walk in the lanes and test one another on the flowers in the hedgerows. Edwyn likes to fight me, and Edwyn likes to hug me. He worries. He likes things orderly. At the moment, he is fascinated by the folk guitarist Richard Thompson – although, these past few weeks, he has also become interested in evolution, especially the famous story of the peppered moth, and in Welsh history, especially the circumstances around the death of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd.
His sister, Alice, is 8 years old. There are times when I think that I am exaggerating when I say that Alice never stops singing, but this is more or less the case. Unlike Edwyn, Alice does not like the mornings, but you know when she wakes up because the singing starts: a slightly husky voice, rich with vibrato, powerful enough to be heard throughout the house. She makes up her own songs, as she always has, and her songs are beautiful, perfectly pitched. Until the pandemic closed it down, the children’s mother, my partner Charlie, ran a cafe in Brecon, our local town. Outside the cafe there is a sill, where Alice would install herself and, with a Tupperware pot at her side, perform her songs for passers-by. She could sometimes earn more than £10 in an hour. Alice is small and dark in complexion, with hair that reaches past her waist. She is fiery, imaginative, often stroppy, very ticklish, very keen on cuddling and very, very sociable. When her hair is tied in a bun, she resembles Little My from the Moomin stories.
In the mornings, normally, we will cycle down to school. On the long, narrow lane called Warren Road, Alice will lead, I will ride in the middle and Edwyn will come at the rear. When we reach the busy roundabout at the bottom of the hill, I will go first, with Alice in the middle and Edwyn at the rear, and lead them into Llanfaes, to their school. We resemble, I often think, a duck with ducklings. I do this because these are the best configurations to make sure that they are safe. In the evenings, after their supper, I will invariably read to them. I have read them everything from The Lord of the Rings to The Brothers Grimm, His Dark Materials to Cakes in Space. I do this because we all enjoy it, and because it settles them down in peace and in security. I do these sorts of things all the time, because I am an ordinary parent, because I love them beyond words and it is my duty – my absolute responsibility – to look after them.
You may have noticed, at the top of this statement, that I did not say “if global temperatures reach 1.5°C”, “if global temperatures reach 2°C”. The reason for this is twofold. For one thing, our emissions of greenhouse gases have, in effect, wrapped the earth in insulation – and the aggregate greenhouse gases, the total amount that we emit, that is the insulation’s total thickness. That is to say, were we to stop emitting all greenhouse gases tomorrow, the earth would not simply cease to heat; it would continue to heat, at least by another 0.2°C. The other thing, of course, is that we are not stopping our emissions of greenhouse gases. The Covid-19 pandemic notwithstanding, global emissions have not yet even peaked. Indeed, 2021 is expected to see the second highest increase in greenhouse gas emissions in history. It is for reasons such as these that a 2017 study published by the Nature journal Nature Climate Change gives us a 1% chance of stabilising our climate at 1.5°C and a 5% chance of stabilising our climate at 2°C. Such probabilities are not “if”. Such probabilities are “when”.
In 2050, Alice will be 38 and Edwyn 41 – close to the age I am now. On current trends, we will long have exceeded the IPCC’s “safe” upper limit of 1.5°C. We will have reached 2°C and, according to recent analysis from the Institute for Economics and Peace, impacts compounded by this heating will have displaced 1.2 billion people from their homes. 1.2 billion people: children, women and men, people like ourselves.
By 2070, when Alice will be 58 and Edwyn 61, we will very likely have reached 3°C. A study, published in the American Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that 3°C will leave about a third of the world’s population living in “extreme heat”: conditions, at present, extremely rare outside the hottest regions of the Sahara Desert. One of the lead authors of the study, Professor Marten Scheffer of Wageningen University, has described such conditions as “unliveable”. Another study, published last year in the journal Nature Communications, suggests that, by 2070, the Amazon rainforest ecosystem – home to more than 3 million species – may well have collapsed and become instead “a savannah-type ecosystem with a mixture of trees and grass”.
“There will,” Professor Scheffer has said, “be more change in the next 50 years than in the past 6,000 years.”
By 2080, Alice will be 68 and Edwyn 71. They will be approaching the current age of my parents. By 2080, under what the government’s Committee on Climate Change (the CCC) calls the “business-as-usual trajectory”, there is every chance that we will have reached “the extreme danger threshold of 4°C”. To quote Professor Steven Sherwood, of the University of New South Wales: “4°C would likely be catastrophic rather than simply dangerous. For example, it would make life difficult, if not impossible, in much of the tropics, and would guarantee the eventual melting of the Greenland ice sheet and some of the Antarctic ice sheet”, which could see a sea level rise of several metres.
For 2100, when, maybe, my children will be 88 and 91 years old – younger, still, than my grandfather is today – multiple models, including those of the U.N. World Meteorological Organization, the Canadian Centre for Climate Modelling and Analysis, and the American National Center for Atmospheric Research, suggest a possible, unimaginable 5°C.
And, of course, neither time nor heating will stop there.
To quote Professor Stefan Rahmstorf, from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research: “Like in the Covid pandemic, timing is critical to prevent devastation. If you wait until you already have a serious problem, then it is too late.”
To quote Sir David Attenborough, speaking two years ago this month: “It may sound frightening, but the scientific evidence is that if we have not taken dramatic action within the next decade, we could face irreversible damage to the natural world and the collapse of our societies.”
To quote Lord Nicholas Stern, IG Patel Professor of Economics and Government and Chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics: “Climate change is the result of the greatest market failure the world has seen. We risk damages on a scale larger than the two world wars of the last century. What we are talking about is extended world war.”
This, on our current course, is the future that we are leaving to Alice and Edwyn – and to your children, and to yours, and to yours.
I was, I think, brought up well by my parents. Thanks to them I am, I think, a good, a moral person. You will note, I hope, that I have never before been charged with any crime.
The climate crisis, the scientific basis of which is endorsed by 98% of all publishing scientists – a consensus greater even than that around evolution – this is not a natural disaster. This is not an earthquake or a meteor strike. The IPCC has existed for thirty-two years. Lyndon Johnson, as US President, was briefed on the science of global heating as far back as 1965, and the heating effects of atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane were well established long before that. We – collectively – have known the consequences of our actions for decades, and we have continued regardless.
This means that, through our behaviour, we are consciously inflicting the impacts I have described, or else assuring the strong likelihood of those impacts, on ourselves, on our children, and on billions of other people: impacts including thirst, hunger, displacement, injury and death. Following the definition in my Oxford English Dictionary, this is, to me, quite clearly a crime – “an evil or injurious act; an offence, a sin; esp. of a grave character” – and a crime on a scale unprecedented in human history.
If I am a moral person, I cannot simply observe this crime. I cannot simply be complicit.
What, then, am I to do? Well. Like thousands upon thousands of others, I have signed petitions and attended protests and, if only once, organised a protest myself. As a writer and as a campaigner, I have written and spoken publicly about climate and ecology on more occasions than I can hope to remember. I have travelled village halls giving talks. I have written and spoken to local councillors, and written and spoken to my Member of the Senedd, and written and spoken to one MP and to another MP… And for all of those who have done the same and very, very much more, despite fifty years of such fine organisations as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, fundamentally nothing has changed.
Our government has not listened.
It has failed even on its own terms. In 2019, by the assessment of the CCC, it missed 24 out of 25 of its climate targets. As Lord Deben, the chair of the CCC, said at the time: “The whole thing is run by the government like a Dad’s Army. We can’t possibly go on with this ramshackle system; it doesn’t begin to face the issues. It is a real threat to the population.” And since then there has been no improvement. Of the 31 milestones for actions recommended to the government by the CCC for 2020, for example, only 2 were fully achieved.
In March this year, the Public Accounts Committee concluded that the government has, quote, “no plan” for addressing climate change.
Given which, it might be reasonable to wonder how it was that, in May 2019, the UK parliament came to declare “an environment and climate emergency” – the first such declaration by any parliament in the world – and that, in June 2019, the UK government signed into law a target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, which, at the time, was the most ambitious target of any major economy.
Well. As regards the climate emergency, here I quote Jeremy Corbyn, the then-leader of the opposition, as he moved that motion on May 1st 2019: “We are witnessing an unprecedented upsurge of climate activism with groups like Extinction Rebellion forcing the politicians in this building to listen… Today we have the opportunity to say: ‘We hear you.’”
“’We hear you.’”
As regards Theresa May signing into law a target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, here I quote the House of Commons Library, Acting on climate change: The plan for net zero emissions in the UK: “In 2019, following Parliament’s declaration of a ‘climate emergency’ and recommendations from the independent Committee on Climate Change (CCC), the Government legislated for net zero greenhouse gas emissions”.
I hardly feel I need to labour this point. Where petitions, and protests, and talks, and meetings with politicians have failed, the tactics of civil disobedience used by Extinction Rebellion have been, to some measure at least, successful. As well as resulting in unprecedented levels of public concern about climate change, the actions of April 2019, in which I am proud to have participated, if too briefly, led directly and demonstrably to parliament’s declaration of a climate emergency, with the 2050 target “following” from that decision.
Manifestly, this is cause and effect.
The reason why I am here today is that, on September 1st last year, I sat on the road in Parliament Square for approximately one hour, holding a piece of paper reading “Support the CEE Bill” – that is, the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill tabled in the House of Commons by the Green MP Caroline Lucas – and did not cooperate when asked to move by a police officer, PC Andrew Dixon, whom I would, incidentally, like to thank for carrying out his duties with civility and professionalism.
In this act, I would like to emphasise, I damaged or injured nothing and nobody.
To those I inconvenienced, I apologise sincerely.
In my defence, I have three points to make.
Firstly, I acted in self-defence and in defence of my two young children, whose lives and homes, according to the best available science, will be severely impacted by the failure of our governments to take meaningful action on the climate and ecological crisis. I have this right under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), enshrined into UK law by the 1998 Human Rights Act, which provides that “Everyone’s right to life shall be protected by law”. I have this right also under Article 8, which provides that “Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence”.
I would like, in this regard, to direct the court to the December 2019 judgment from the Dutch Court of Appeal in the Urgenda Foundation case, concerning the failure of the Dutch Government to take reasonable measures against climate change:
45. As is evident from the above, the Court believes that it is appropriate to speak of a real threat of dangerous climate change, resulting in the serious risk that the current generation of citizens will be confronted with loss of life and/or a disruption of family life. As has been considered above by the Court, it follows from Articles 2 and 8 ECHR that the State has a duty to protect against this real threat …
73. Based on this, the Court is of the opinion that the State fails to fulfil its duty of care pursuant to Articles 2 and 8 … The very serious dangers, not contested by the State, associated with a temperature rise of 2° C or 1.5° C – let alone higher – also preclude such a margin of uncertainty …
I would also like to cite the case of Angela Ditchfield, another member of Extinction Rebellion, who, in November 2019, was acquitted of criminal damage for spray-painting the headquarters of Cambridgeshire County Council. Delivering its verdict, the lay bench at Cambridge Magistrate’s Court said: “We find that you have a very strong and honestly held belief that we are facing a climate emergency, and that you acted on the spur of the moment to protect land and homes under threat from climate change, believing that immediate protection was necessary, and the action could be said to have been taken to protect property, and that you believed the action chosen was reasonable in all circumstances…”
Secondly, I would like to remind the court of, in my view, the moral nature of my actions. In this regard, I would like to assert my right to freedom of conscience, inscribed under Article 9 of the ECHR – “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” – and to direct the court to the Crown Prosecution guidance on prosecuting protest offences, published on 28th January 2019:
Prosecutors must apply the principles of the European Convention on Human Rights (the Convention), in accordance with the Human Rights Act 1998, at each stage of a case. It is a defence to prove the conduct was reasonable and in accordance with the freedom of expression and other freedoms. If these freedoms are engaged, a justification for interference with them (by prosecuting) must be established. A prosecution may only proceed if it is necessary and proportionate.
Thirdly, I acted out of necessity, so as to help to avert a more serious harm, or at least to help mitigate its most catastrophic effects – because as a tactic it is acknowledged by parliament, which alone has the power to make the changes we need to ensure our survival: mine, yours, all of ours.
Here I would refer the court to “re F”, a House of Lords Case from 1990, which concerned the sterilisation of a woman who was unable to give her consent to the procedure, during which Lord Goff said (p. 74 A-C):
That there exists in the common law a principle of necessity which may justify action which would otherwise be unlawful is not in doubt. But historically the principle has been seen to be restricted to two groups of cases, which have been called cases of public necessity and cases of private necessity. The former occurred when a man interfered with another man’s property in the public interest – for example (in the days before we would dial 999 for the fire brigade) the destruction of another man’s house to prevent the spread of catastrophic fire, as indeed occurred in the Great Fire of London in 1666…
There is, however, a third group of cases, which is also properly described as founded upon the principle of necessity and which is more pertinent to the resolution of the problem in the present case. These cases are concerned with action taken as a matter of necessity to assist another person without his consent. To give a simple example, a man who seizes another and forcibly drags him from the path of an oncoming vehicle, thereby saving him from injury or even death, commits no wrong.
According to Sir James Stephen, cited in the case of “Re A” (conjoined twins) of 2001, “there are three necessary requirements for the application of the doctrine of necessity:
- the act is needed to avoid inevitable and irreparable evil;
- no more should be done than is reasonably necessary for the purpose to be achieved;
- the evil inflicted must not be disproportionate to the evil avoided.
I believe that I have demonstrated beyond any doubt the “irreparable evil” that will result – inevitably – from our governments’ failure to confront the climate crisis, as well as that minor acts of civil disobedience such as mine have contributed to limiting this evil. By sitting in a public thoroughfare, I have certainly done no more “than is reasonably necessary” – if anything, like all of us here and throughout the world, I would argue that I have done too little – and manifestly it was not “disproportionate to the evil avoided”: an evil which, after all, potentially encompasses “the collapse of our societies” and the extinction of millions of species – among then, very possibly, our own. Therefore I say, clearly and categorically, that my action was justified both morally and in law.
Regardless. Today, of course, is Earth Day: an event held every April 22nd to demonstrate support for environmental protection. It is an opportunity, last year taken by over 100 million people in 192 countries, to assert the danger faced by our world, and to stand up for what is – unequivocally – true and right and just. Today, I am joining millions of others in making this same assertion. Today you, the court, with ample precedent, as in the case of Regina vs Angela Ditchfield, have an opportunity to do the same.
I do not want to become a criminal. I do not deserve to become a criminal. I can state, without the ghost of a doubt, that to do as I and thousands of other members of Extinction Rebellion have done was not merely justified, it was an absolute moral obligation.
I would, in conclusion, like to mention the custody officer who, on the night of September 1st, locked me in a cell in Charing Cross Police Station, where I remained until midday on September 3rd. He was a little younger than me perhaps, softly-spoken, a wearer of glasses – though, as my own glasses had been taken at the desk, I missed the details of his appearance. This officer, having brought me blankets, food and water, returned to the corridor and went to close the door, but then stopped and said to me:
“On behalf of myself and my children, I want to thank you for what you have done.”
I ask the court, please, before it comes to its decision, to reflect on that officer’s words.
Thank you again for your time.