High-Profile Trial of the 'Heathrow 13' Enlists Climate Scientist as Expert Witness
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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By Sherry H-Y. Chou, Aarti Sarwal and Neha S. Dangayach
The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.
When a neurologist examined him, Tom was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, an autoimmune disease that causes abnormal sensation and weakness due to delays in sending signals through the nerves. Usually reversible, in severe cases it can cause prolonged paralysis involving breathing muscles, require ventilator support and sometimes leave permanent neurological deficits. Early recognition by expert neurologists is key to proper treatment.
We are neurologists specializing in intensive care and leading studies related to neurological complications from COVID-19. Given the occurrence of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in prior pandemics with other corona viruses like SARS and MERS, we are investigating a possible link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19 and tracking published reports to see if there is any link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19.
Some patients may not seek timely medical care for neurological symptoms like prolonged headache, vision loss and new muscle weakness due to fear of getting exposed to virus in the emergency setting. People need to know that medical facilities have taken full precautions to protect patients. Seeking timely medical evaluation for neurological symptoms can help treat many of these diseases.
What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?
Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.
Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.
To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.
Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.
The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.
Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Pandemics
As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.
Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.
Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.
Though there is clear clinical suspicion that COVID-19 can lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, many important questions remain. What are the chances that someone gets Guillain-Barre Syndrome during or following a COVID-19 infection? Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome happen more often in those who have been infected with COVID-19 compared to other types of infections, such as the flu?
The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.
Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome
While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.
It is certainly possible that there are other cases that have not been reported. The Global Consortium Study of Neurological Dysfunctions in COVID-19 is actively underway to find out how often neurological problems like Guillain-Barre Syndrome is seen in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Also, just because Guillain-Barre Syndrome occurs in a patient diagnosed with COVID-19, that does not imply that it was caused by the virus; this still may be a coincident occurrence. More research is needed to understand how the two events are related.
Due to the pandemic and infection-containment considerations, diagnostic tests, such as a nerve conduction study that used to be routine for patients with suspected Guillain-Barre Syndrome, are more difficult to do. In both U.S. cases, the initial diagnosis and treatment were all based on clinical examination by a neurological experts rather than any tests. Both patients survived but with significant residual weakness at the time these case reports came out, but that is not uncommon for Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients. The road to recovery may sometimes be long, but many patients can make a full recovery with time.
Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.
Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.
Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.
Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
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In a series of tweets Wednesday night, Ocasio-Cortez—the lead sponsor of the House Green New Deal resolution—noted that the Climate Task Force "shaved 15 years off Biden's previous target for 100% clean energy."
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Sanders said that while the "end result isn't what I or my supporters would've written alone, the task forces have created a good policy blueprint that will move this country in a much-needed progressive direction and substantially improve the lives of working families throughout our country."
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Biden, for his part, applauded the task forces "for helping build a bold, transformative platform for our party and for our country."
"I am deeply grateful to Bernie Sanders for working with us to unite our party and deliver real, lasting change for generations to come," said the former vice president.
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