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Climate Protesters Avoid Jail

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Climate Protesters Avoid Jail

Today 13 individuals who blockaded a runway to protest against expanding Heathrow airport were expected to be sent to prison but ended up receiving six-week suspended sentences instead. They had packed suitcases and set up their "out of office" email messages anticipating to become the first climate activists in the UK to receive a prison sentence.

It is symptomatic of the overwhelming influence of corporate interests over our democracies to threaten peaceful protestors who take action for the greater good with prison sentences, 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.

Photo credit: Plane Stupid

In the case of the Heathrow 13, this is what happened: In July last year, a commission tasked by the UK government recommended expanding the Heathrow airport. Two weeks later, 13 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" include 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 percent of global emissions but the industry’s rapid expansion could see that number jump to 22 percent 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 a MIT estimate.

Photo credit: Plane Stupid

Even though the judge recognized that the Heathrow 13 were "principled and passionate 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 return to court.

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Aggravated trespass is a criminal offense 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 had no prior convictions.

Meanwhile in France ...

There is another anti-aviation fight in Europe that is gaining steam. 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 more than 11,000 signatures in just 24 hours.

Photo credit: Non a l'aeroport Notre-Dame-des-Landes

The battle against the airport at NDDL has grown into the most iconic fight of the French climate and social justice movement. The airport project is seen to represent 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, 11 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 mobilization on Feb. 27.

The anti-aviation fights in France and the UK heat up as groups around the globe prepare for a series of mass mobilizations that will disrupt iconic fossil fuel projects on six continents in May. The sentencing of the Heathrow 13 today only marks the onset of a new wave of climate disobedience. Groups around the world are currently preparing mass mobilizations to shut down major fossil fuel projects on six continents in a series of actions from May 7-15. The Break Free wave of actions will target oil wells in Nigeria, coal mines in Germany and Australia, fracking in Brazil, and coal plants in Turkey and the Philippines among others.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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