Climate activism in a new era: why climate justice is worth the fight

Fighting for climate justice is becoming increasingly difficult, as shown by the conviction of five protesters in Wales. Yet, even it seems like an impossible and endless task, it remains a cause worth fighting for.

Kelvin Mason
2 June 2017
Dead canaries block the road.jpg

Protester dressed as dead canaries blocking the road at the Ffos-y-frân coal mine. Picture by Kelvin Mason.On 8th May, five people were together fined £10,000 and ordered to pay courts costs of £525 for taking non-violent direct action to save lives and mitigate environmental harms. In April activists from Reclaim the Power and Earth First! Locked onto machinery and blocked a road to close Ffos-y-frân opencast coalmine in south Wales for a single day. Subsequently, Andrea Brock, 31, Crispin Field, 22, Rick Felgate, 24, Kim Turner, 24, and Alice Shipsey, 60, appeared before Magistrates in Merthyr Tydfil charged with aggravated trespass. During their action the activists dressed as dead canaries, conjuring the birds historically used in deep coal mines to indicate the presence of poisonous gas, underlining that coal from Ffos-y-frân is poisoning the environment and the atmosphere with similarly toxic gases.

Scaling the harms

Beginning production in 2008, Ffos-y-frân has produced around 6.5 million tonnes of coal to date. When burned to generate electricity this amount of coal produces almost 15 million tonnes of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, the principal driver of climate change. In addition to this global harm, Anne Harris of the Coal Action Network highlights the local impact: ‘Ffos-y-frân is covering people's homes in dust that residents are breathing in every day. Earlier this year, a United Nations special rapporteur on hazardous substances and wastes called for an independent investigation into the potential health impacts of the mine.’ Covering 367 hectares, Ffos-y-Frân is also a monstrous blot on the landscape, recreating the grim visage of the industrial revolution in an area trying to recover and reinvent itself after an epoch of unfettered exploitation that, almost needless to say, did not benefit residents of the area. 

Between the local and global, the mine is harming people on a regional scale too. Anne Harris again: ‘Ffos-y-frân's main customer has been Aberthaw power station. Aberthaw is the dirtiest power station in the UK in terms of Nitrogen Oxides produced. In the first half of 2016, the plant emitted 11,003 tonnes of NOx, almost four times the 4,800 tonnes permitted [annually] under European Union Industrial Emissions Directive limits. The UK government has allowed RWE npower, the plant’s operator, to breach EU air quality regulations at Aberthaw, and a September 2016 ruling by the European Court of Justice said this was unlawful.’

Plumes of pollution from the plant also spread over swathes of southern England, Ireland and as far as France, resulting in 400 premature deaths per year.

Earlier this year a report by Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace calculated that ‘pollution from Aberthaw is responsible for curtailing the lives of 67 people in Wales every year’. Plumes of NOx and particle pollution from the plant also spread over swathes of southern England, Ireland and as far as France, resulting in 400 premature deaths per year. In addition to the moral injustice, the report calculates that the annual cost of the premature deaths from Aberthaw’s pollution totals £226.4m. Yet, as recently as January 2016, RWE npower received a public subsidy of £27m to continue operating the noxious plant.

Turning the clocks back

Commenting on the magistrates’ decision in Merthyr Tydfil, local resident Chris Austin of the United Valley’s Action Group said: ‘It was a travesty of justice to say the least. They were hammered in court to send a message to all potential environmental activists that, if they take direct action, they will be crippled financially. They wanted to appeal, but magistrates warned that if they came before the court again they’d most probably get a criminal record, a fine, costs, and still be subject to a compensation claim. So, Hobson’s choice!’ On hearing the verdict, two of the activists were in tears, shocked at the amount of money they had to find, and frustrated that they had to pay compensation to the mining company which is the real criminal.’ Facing a personal fine of £2,000 plus a share of the court costs Andrea Brock said: ‘Ffos-y-frân showcases the failures of environmental regulation in the UK and the court’s decision favours corporate power over public interests.’

Times have certainly changed for environmental and climate justice. In 2008, which we can consider simultaneously as a just a few years ago and also ‘in another lifetime’, a jury cleared six Greenpeace activists of causing criminal damage to the now defunct Kingsnorth power station. The activists scaled a 200 metre high chimney at the dual-fired coal and oil power station on the Hoo Peninsula in Kent and were accused of causing damage to the tune of £30,000. Their lawyers successfully employed climate change as a defence. At the time, environmentalists took the ‘Kingsnorth Six’ verdict to be a watershed moment. Turns out, it was not. The size of the fine imposed by magistrates in Merthyr Tydfil is evidence of a historical reverse that defies rationality and is unjust. The law may not be methodically favouring corporate power over public interest, but it is certainly doing so morally. 

The law may not be methodically favouring corporate power over public interest, but it is certainly doing so morally. 

We should not be surprised. Recent manifestations of the same reversal include last year’s election as US President climate change denier Donald Trump, who intends to scrap his country’s Environmental Protection Agency, the Brexit vote in Britain that seems certain to weaken environmental regulation and so sustain deadly anachronisms like Aberthaw, and the axing of the Department of Energy and Climate Change by Theresa May as one of her first moves on becoming Prime Minister following David Cameron’s political self-immolation with his ‘greenest government ever’ pledge ringing forever hollow in the ear of history. On the day this article is published, Donald Trump pulled the US out of the Paris climate accord. Despite a cursory expression of disappointment, Theresa May did not sign the declaration made by the other G7 countries reiterating their commitment to the accord. A gleeful UKIP commented that ‘Donald Trump is right to call time on climate change scam’. Climate change is fake news, folks, unfit to be a significant issue in the coming UK election.

In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle makes a complex but vital distinction between justice and equity. Although equity is just, it is not identical to legal justice. It is the rectification of legal justice because the law is inevitably always a general statement which can never cover specific case. Moreover, the general or majority view of justice changes over time. Expressions of equity serve to effect changes in the law, attempting to keep it up to date as minority causes become majority societal values. Thus, for Aristotle, equity is the superior virtue.

‘We will be back!’

For the last ten years, opponents of Ffos-y-frân have employed every means possible, from petitions and citizenly protest through legal challenges to non-violent direct action to stop coal mining. They do so because they are morally bound to try to prevent deadly harm to people and planet. Opposition to coal mining has brought together climate activists and local environmental justice groups, who have understood and taken on board each other’s issues. Together this alliance staged climate camps near the Merthyr Tydfil mine in 2009, 2010 and again just last year. In 2017 some 200 red-clad activists, led by a Welsh dragon breathing smoke, occupied the mine and halted production for the day. On that occasion, the mining consortium, Miller Argent, conceded to the mass of the protest and no arrests were made. Undeterred by the continual opposition that they have faced, however, Miller Argent continue their mining operations under the increasingly preposterous banner of ‘land reclamation’. Indeed, the consortium is appealing against Caerphilly Council’s 2015 decision to refuse them planning permission for an adjacent opencast mine, Nant Llesg, which would operate on a similarly deleterious scale.

Reacting to the hefty fine imposed on their Ffos-y-frân action, Reclaim the Power and Earth First! have declared their defiant intention: ‘We will be back!’ Speaking in Merthyr Tydfil, Rick Felgate expressed the collective commitment to continue the struggle: ‘the decision shows that Miller Argent and the wider establishment are clearly alarmed by the growing resistance. We cannot be deterred and this only shows the urgency of our movement to escalate.’

A Sisyphean task

In the wake of COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009, ethicist Dale Jamieson marks the demise of effective governmental action on global climate change. In his book ‘Reason in Dark Times’, Jamieson notes that our maladies significantly predate Trump, Brexit and May: ‘Our failure to prevent or even respond significantly (to climate change) reflects the impoverishment of our systems of practical reason, the paralysis of our politics, and the limits of our cognitive and affective capacities.’ Jamieson concludes that: ‘Despite the unprecedented nature of the challenge, human life will have meaning as long as people take up the burden.’

According to Jamieson’s comprehensive analysis, taking up the climate change burden is a Sisyphean task. Not putting any sort of fine point on it, he decides that: ‘climate change is occurring and is effectively irreversible on timescales that are meaningful to us.’ While some Reclaim the Power and Earth First! activists will disagree with this analysis and continue to hold out hope for the future, actually the course of action indicated by Jamieson is identical to what they are doing. Taking up the climate change burden means either accepting that taking such an action in itself invests life with meaning – as Albert Camus concludes ‘One must imagine Sisyphus happy’ – or else taking such action will actually contribute to the mitigation climate change.

We must end our addiction to coal now.

In either case, taking up the environmental burden is exactly what the courageous and creative activists were doing at FFos-y-frân. Anne Harris sums up the ongoing challenge: ‘for the sake of the people living next to Ffos-y-frân and Nant Llesg, coal mining needs to stop - for all of us breathing the toxic fumes from Aberthaw power station. And it must be shut for those living in the Global South, the people most affected by climate change: we must end our addiction to coal now.’ Crispin Field voices the collective wisdom of the environmental direct action networks: ‘we need a diversity of tactics to stop fossil fuel industries.’ Even more than achieving that goal, perhaps, taking action on various fronts also invests meaning with vitality and joy. And it keeps the pressure on legal justice to bend towards equity.

You can still help the five climate activists pay their inequitable £10,000 penalty, you can contribute here.

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