Thomas Jefferson once said, “when injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty” On the 13th of July 2015, 13 activists (the Heathrow 13) entered and blockaded the northern runway at London Heathrow airport in protest at the proposed expansion of the airport and the construction of a third runway.
Today (25th of January 2016), despite acknowledging that London’s Heathrow airport already has pollution levels well above safe and legal limits AND describing them as of “good” and “positive” character, the judge in the Heathrow 13 trial has recommended that all 13 activists prepare themselves for custodial sentences, charged with aggravated trespass.
There are numerous grounds on which to dispute this decision. Firstly, the 13’s defence has centred on the argument that they acted to save lives. This argument is scientifically accurate, the expansion of Heathrow and construction of a third runway is set to triple deaths due to air pollution in a city which already suffers from 9,500 deaths a year as a result of its polluted air. Once we also take into account the carbon dioxide emissions that Heathrow’s expansions will bring (the third runway will have an equivalent carbon footprint to Kenya) and the increasing extreme weather events that are already claiming lives across the globe, which will increase in frequency and severity in a changing climate it is clear that lives are at stake.
Secondly, of the 13 activists 10 have no prior convictions, and the action in which they participated was entirely non-violent and conducted with the best interest of both local residents and the global population at heart. The court is making an example of these activists: the recommendation for incarceration is designed to deter others from following in their footsteps and partaking in civil disobedience. The fact that people can be incarcerated for non-violent activity, undertaken to ensure the preservation of a hospitable planet for humanity, is ridiculous. But herein lies the issue with focusing the case of the Heathrow 13 on legal grounds.
The entire legal system of this country is centred on protecting corporate interests whilst the safety of its inhabitants trails behind. The case of the Heathrow 13 should not be and is not a legal case. It is a moral case. Laws (except those acting to restrict our freedoms) are incredibly slow to change in the UK, much slower than the rate at which our climate is changing and will continue to change if the third runway is given the go-ahead.
The question here is not whether their actions were LEGAL but whether they were MORALLY JUST.
Granted, under UK law they entered a restricted space and obstructed aviation. Granted, the actions of the Heathrow 13 delayed flights, disrupted some holidays and cost the aviation giants a miniscule percentage of their profits. But when placed in the wider context of climate change and the widespread displacement, destruction and cost that it will bring the group’s actions become a necessary sacrifice.
Climate change is an issue like nothing we have tackled in the past. It is an extra-ordinary issue that warrants extra-ordinary actions. I ask that we consider not an antiquated legal system as we talk about the Heathrow 13 but our moral obligations to protect those who call this planet home and set a clear statement that people’s lives and this planet are more important than an aviation giant’s profits.
Photos in text: Plane Stupid