The Heathrow 13 threatened with jail sentences stand on the right side of history

The past teaches us that epic struggles against powerful interests cannot be won without some people putting their freedom on the line

This week the 13 activists who blockaded a runway at Heathrow airport in July 2015, protesting against the contribution of aviation emissions toward climate change, have been told to expect jail sentences.  

The judge acknowledged their principled belief that they were acting in the public interest. Yet when delivering her verdict yesterday, she told them all to expect time in prison – primarily because of the ‘astronomical cost’ of the protest for the airport’s owners, BAA.

But what this judge did not factor in is the cost to the rest of us that increasing aviation emissions pose. These thirteen people had blocked flights at Heathrow in a desperate attempt to stop people dying from the effects of pollution and climate change.

Rising pollution from air travel is a very real and dangerous problem that nobody with power wants to solve. While every other sector of industry battles to drive down CO2 as part of the Paris agreement, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) is planning for air travel emissions to just keep on rising.

In fact, aviation emissions were not even included in the Paris climate agreement signed by 195 countries in December. In the UK, aviation is the only sector of the British economy that is not expected to make any contribution to national emissions reductions. Cameron’s pre-election, ‘no ifs, no buts’ pledge has slowly, painfully reverted to the default Government position on this topic: rising demand for more flights must be catered to at all costs – preferably with a new runway at Heathrow.

If a third runway is built at Heathrow we will have no hope of meeting our legally binding carbon targets. Meanwhile research published in 2012 estimated that Heathrow is already responsible for levels of air pollution that contribute to around 50 premature deaths each year – a number that could treble if a third runway is built.

This is the context in which Plane Stupid activists were compelled to intervene, by placing their bodies in the way of aeroplanes at Heathrow airport last summer. When democratic legislative processes have failed, it falls to ordinary citizens to act to protect the public interest and challenge the status quo. These brave souls were acting in all of our long-term best interests when they cut through the fence at Heathrow last summer.

It is now understood that climate change is an existential threat to human civilization. Anyone with a conscience should be doing what they can to address this threat. For most of us this means signing petitions, cycling more or insulating our lofts. But history teaches us that epic struggles against powerful vested interests cannot be won without some people being prepared to do much, much more than this – including putting their freedom on the line.

It takes a special sort of person to make this kind of commitment and sacrifice. The Heathrow 13 are just such people. History will judge them kindly.

If the judge goes ahead with her threat, the Heathrow 13 will be Britain’s first ever climate prisoners. But as the long as the state continues to fail so abysmally in its duty of care, they won’t be the last.

Leo Murray is a co-founder and former activist with Plane Stupid. He is currently campaigning for a fairer tax on air travel at afreeride.org.

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