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High-Profile Trial of the 'Heathrow 13' Enlists Climate Scientist as Expert Witness

Climate

Thirteen people found guilty of aggravated trespass while protesting against the proposed expansion of Heathrow airport are due to be sentenced next week. It could see the first custodial sentences handed down to environmental protesters in the UK in two decades.

The high-profile trial of the “Heathrow 13” has gone down the rare—but not unprecedented—route of enlisting a climate scientist as an expert witness for the defense.

Thirteen people found guilty of aggravated trespass while protesting against the proposed expansion of Heathrow airport are due to be sentenced next week.

Prof. Alice Bows-Larkin, professor of climate science and policy at the University of Manchester, gave evidence to the court on the impact of aviation on climate change. Exclusively, Carbon Brief has her full statement, exactly as it was submitted to the judge in the trial.

Awaiting Sentence

The “Heathrow 13,” part of the Plane Stupid campaign group, were arrested on July 13 last year after chaining themselves to a railing on Heathrow’s northern runway for six hours to protest against the impact of aviation emissions on climate change.

The protesters were arrested and later found guilty of aggravated trespass. District Judge Deborah Wright said that while it was clear the defendants were “principled people” and committed to their cause, she didn’t accept their actions were necessary to protect people from climate change. They should be prepared for jail time, she said, because of the “astronomical” cost of disrupting more than 20 flights.

With their final sentences due to be passed at Willesden magistrates court on Feb. 24, the case of the “Heathrow 13” has garnered a fair amount of media coverage and high-profile political support in recent weeks. One law expert told the Independent that custodial sentences for a peaceful, non-violent protest would be “unprecedented in modern times.”

The criminal charge of aggravated trespass came into force in 1994, following a series of road-building protests. While it can technically carry a custodial sentence “not exceeding three months,” no one has since faced jail time as a result of a non-violent environmental protest in the UK.

A statement on the Plane Stupid website says:

“The defendants argue that their action was necessary due to the airport’s contribution to life-threatening climatic changes. Furthermore, Heathrow expansion is inhumane to the local residents and those at the sharp end of climate change and hugely environmentally destructive.”

“Necessity Defense”

The “Heathrow 13” case isn’t the first time climate change has been used as a defense in a court of law. In 2008, the "Kingsnorth Six," arrested for trying to shut down a coal-fired power plant in Kent, England, were acquitted after arguing what’s known in law as a “necessity defense.”

The defendants successfully argued that their actions were legally justified since they were intending to prevent the far greater harms to society posed by climate change. The nine-person jury cleared the defendants of any wrongdoing by a majority verdict.

Unlike the “Heathrow 13,” whose lesser charges of aggravated trespass warranted a trial by magistrate, the reported £30,000 damages caused by “Kingsnorth Six” meant they appeared before a jury instead.

In January 2016, a judge allowed lawyers to present climate change as a necessity defense for the first time in the U.S., in the case of the "Delta Five," a group of activists accused of obstructed a train carrying coal and crude oil.

The defense was less successful that time, however, with the same judge later ruling that the evidence was insufficiently strong for the jury to take into account in its verdict. The protesters were found guilty of trespass, though not guilty of obstructing the train and spared jail time.

On the rare occasions when climate change has been used as a criminal defense, it’s not unknown for a climate scientist to be called on to give supporting evidence.

Dr. James Hansen, veteran climate scientist and former director of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Goddard Institute for Space Studies, appeared as an expert witness in both the “Kingsnorth Six” and “Delta Five” cases and again in 2010 in the trial of 20 activists accused of planning to trespass on a coal plant near Nottingham.

In the trial of the “Heathrow 13,” Prof. Alice Bows Larkin, a professor of climate science and energy policy at the University of Manchester, specializing in shipping and aviation emissions, gave evidence on behalf of the defense. She did not appear in court, instead submitting a written statement to the judge, parts of which were read out as a summary in court.

Read page 1

Bearing Witness

Bows-Larkin’s statement begins with a general outline of the impact on climate change of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other substances present in aircraft emissions, such as nitrous oxides, soot, water vapor and sulphur dioxides. She explains:

“Estimates of the historical warming … suggest that the total warming impact of aviation has been around twice that than would be caused by the CO2 alone.”

Bows-Larkin then explains how, to be consistent with the legally-binding obligation in the Paris agreement of limiting warming to “well-below 2C above pre-industrial levels,” emissions from the aviation sector, like all other sectors, will need to be reduced to near-zero. She says:

“The vast majority of academics working on climate change mitigation would agree that a rapid and significant reduction in the combustion of fossil fuels is needed in the coming decades … I am unaware of any analysis that can demonstrate how aviation could be an exception to this.”

The combination of growing demand and few technical options on the horizon that could dramatically reduce aircraft emissions means that the inability of the aviation industry to curb its environmental impact constitutes a public health risk, says Bows-Larkin. She says:

“All CO2 emitting sectors are damaging to human health through contributing to further warming, but particularly concerning are sectors that do not foresee a significant cut in CO2 going into the future.”

Bows-Larkin acknowledges the potential for technology, such as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, to offset greenhouse gas emissions. But there is a big question mark over whether we can assume such technologies will materialize in time to meet climate targets, she explains.

Full Text

Below is Bows-Larkin’s expert witness statement to the trial of the “Heathrow 13” in full, exactly as it was submitted to the judge.

It’s a detailed account of where the aviation industry sits alongside UK domestic and international law and is worth reading in full. Or, for a flavor of exactly what the court heard, Raj Chada, partner at Hodge Jones & Allen and defense lawyer for four of the accused, has confirmed to Carbon Brief that sections 2.2, 2.6, 3, 8 and parts of 9 were read out in court as a summary of her testimony.

Heathrow13 evidence from Prof Alice Bows Larkin

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On Thursday, the U.S. Drought Monitor said nearly 60 percent of the state was abnormally dry, up from 46 percent just last week, according to The Mercury News in San Jose.

The dry winter has included areas that have seen devastating fires recently, including Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties. If the dry conditions continue, those areas will once again have dangerously high fire conditions, according to The Mercury News.

"Given what we've seen so far this year and the forecast for the next few weeks, I do think it's pretty likely we'll end up in some degree of drought by this summer," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported.

Another alarming sign of an impending drought is the decreased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. The National Weather Service posted to Twitter a side-by-side comparison of snowpack from February 2019 and from this year, illustrating the puny snowpack this year. The snow accumulated in the Sierra Nevadas provides water to roughly 30 percent of the state, according to NBC Los Angeles.

Right now, the snowpack is at 53 percent of its normal volume after two warm and dry months to start the year. It is a remarkable decline, considering that the snowpack started 2020 at 90 percent of its historical average, as The Guardian reported.

"Those numbers are going to continue to go down," said Swain. "I would guess that the 1 March number is going to be less than 50 percent."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center forecast that the drier-than-average conditions may last through April.

NOAA said Northern California will continue deeper into drought through the end of April, citing that the "persistent high pressure over the North Pacific Ocean is expected to continue, diverting storm systems to the north and south and away from California and parts of the Southwest," as The Weather Channel reported.

As the climate crisis escalates and the world continues to heat up, California should expect to see water drawn out of its ecosystem, making the state warmer and drier. Increased heat will lead to further loss of snow, both as less falls and as more of it melts quickly, according to The Guardian.

"We aren't going to necessarily see less rain, it's just that that rain goes less far. That's a future where the flood risk extends, with bigger wetter storms in a warming world," said Swain, as The Guardian reported.

The Guardian noted that while California's reservoirs are currently near capacity, the more immediate impact of the warm, dry winter will be how it raises the fire danger as trees and grasslands dry out.

"The plants and the forests don't benefit from the water storage reservoirs," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported. "If conditions remain very dry heading into summer, the landscape and vegetation is definitely going to feel it this year. From a wildfire perspective, the dry years do tend to be the bad fire years, especially in Northern California."