Kingsnorth trial day three: world's leading climate scientist gives evidence

Posted by bex — 3 September 2008 at 10:45pm - Comments

James Hansen

James Hansen in conversation outside Maidstone Crown Court © Rezac/Greenpeace

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This is a difficult blog to write - mostly because I'm not sure what to leave out. Today, at the Kingsnorth trial, the world's leading climate scientist told the court that emissions from Kingsnorth led to damage to property worldwide, as well as the extinction of species and the creation of climate change refugees. Gordon Brown, he said, should announce a moratorium on all new coal plants without carbon capture and storage (CCS).

Another witness - an authority on climate change impacts in the UK - said all citizens and governments needed to "act with urgency". And two of the defendants, Emily and Kevin, gave impressive testimonies about why they took the action they did. And there's nowhere near enough space to write about it all.

The talk over the morning tea and toast though was all about Jim Hansen. To give you a sense of what his appearance as a defence witness means to the defendants, I should explain that Hansen is a bit of a hero to climate campaigners. This is the man who introduced much of the world to the idea of climate change 20 years ago, when he famously stood up in front of Congress and warned them about it. He's spent much of his time since warning a succession of US Vice Presidents, including Al Gore, about the same thing. Like I said, a bit of a hero - and he didn't disappoint today.

More on that in a bit. First up was Dr Geoffrey Meaden, an eloquent defence witness with so many letters after his name that I lost track after BSc, BEd, MSc and Phd. In the course of his evidence (via video link from Brazil), he confirmed that the examples of climate change impacts given by the defendants are 'true circumstances'.

"It is overwhelmingly perceived," he said, "by the defendants, the scientific community and myself" that the causes of climate change are caused by humans. There's an increasing urgency, he said, for all citizens and governments to take action.

Within five years, said Dr Meaden, there could be no summer ice left in the Arctic. Ironically, he said, Kingsnorth will be 'extremely vulnerable' to flooding due to climate change.

"The situation is so urgent that unless we act immediately to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, by the next century we may have to abandon up to 20 per cent of Kent to the sea... It behoves us to act with urgency."

A lot of the evidence today - from both Dr Meaden and Professor Hansen - was quite technical, looking at the parts per million of carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere, tipping points and feedback mechanisms. After explaining tipping points in a scientific context, Dr Meaden told the jury that some have suggested that "the most urgent tipping point is a change in human behaviours and actions."

Emily Hall Then Emily took the stand, and introduced herself and how she'd come to be involved with Greenpeace. Emily explained that whatever emissions are in the atmosphere now will have impacts for years to come. When asked why she climbed down the chimney, she said, "I felt very strongly that I wanted to do that". And when the pictures of her hanging off the top of Kingsnorth's smokestack were handed out, I noticed at least a couple of jurors drawing breath.

Kevin was next and introduced himself as a rope access worker from Wiltshire who'd become concerned about climate change back in the '80s. Kevin's questions focused mostly on the safety aspects of the direct action.

Just after 2pm, it was Professor James Hansen's turn. The public gallery and press area were packed, and news crews were waiting outside. I'd had the slightly surreal experience of walking down Maidstone High Street with Hansen on the way to the trial and, while he seemed gentle and self-effacing in person, on the stand he had a lot of gravitas. Not surprising, I suppose, for someone who's testified multiple times to the US Senate and House of Representatives.

Hansen has been studying the climatology of various planets for over 30 years, and has spent the last 20 specialising in the Earth's climate. He managed to say such a huge amount worth repeating in his hour and a half on the stand that I'm going to resort to putting his main points in a list, in the hope you'll read them:


  • Out of every country on earth, the UK bears the most responsibility for historical CO2 emissions in the atmosphere per person (followed by the US, then Germany).
  • We've already passed a safe proportion of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and we need to roll it back. It can still be done but only if we get coal out of the system as quickly as possible - by putting a moratorium on all new plants without carbon capture and storage and phasing out old ones.
  • If we carry on with business as usual, we'll cause the extinction of one million species. Proportionately, several hundred of these species extinctions could be associated directly with Kingsnorth power station.
  • He agreed with Al Gore's statement: "I can't understand why there aren’t rings of young people blocking bulldozers and preventing them from constructing coal-fired power stations".
  • Somebody - the leader of the UK, Germany or the US - needs to "step up", take leadership and announce a moratorium on new coal plants.
  • The atmosphere currently contains around 385 parts per million (ppm) of CO2, rising by 2ppm per year. Most targets to stop climate change suggest a target of 450ppm, and a two degree rise in temperature as safe upper limits. To meet those targets will require our world to change dramatically.
  • But the safe level is no more than 350ppm - and may be less. And a rise of two degrees is "a recipe for global disaster and not salvation". The last time the earth was more than two degrees warmer than it is now, there was a 25 metre sea level rise.
  • "The simple but shocking truth is we have gone too far. We place our planetary system, inhabitants and future generations in grave peril... If we are to preserve the planet that civilisation has grown on, we have to go back."
  • "Humans are now in charge of atmospheric CO2 and the global climate... It's up to those of us alive today to take the bold steps needed."
  • If we carry on as we are at the moment, the Greenland ice sheets will melt, leading to a sea level rise of at least two metres this century. Hundreds of millions of people will be come refugees. There will be mass species extinction and ecosystem collapse.
  • If the ice in the (vulnerable) Western Arctic* West Antarctic ice sheet melts, the sea levels would rise by around six metres.
  • The complete loss of Arctic sea ice in the summer is now inevitable. The impacts on China, Kent, Bangladesh and the polar regions are enormous.

(* Sorry, my error in typing up my notes.)

It was at this point that I started to feel really sorry for the jury. They're getting, essentially, a crash course in climate change and its impacts from some of the most knowledgeable minds on the subject (Hansen and Meaden) in the world, and some of the most passionate (the defendants). I'd imagine, to some of the jurors, the evidence must seem pretty terrifying. It is terrifying.

Thankfully though, Hansen went on to talk about what could still be done. He was invited to go on stage with Al Gore at Live Earth, he said, and took his grandchildren along. How many species do we need to save, he asked them. "All of them," said his grand-daughter. ("Me too," said his grand-son.)

We can't save all of them but we can still save most, he said. If we continue with business-as-usual our descendants will be "left with a much more desolate planet and much less biodiversity". But, although "there's just barely still time", we need an immediate moratorium on the construction of all new coal fired power plants (without CCS) and the phasing out of existing coal plants to get back to 350ppm. And somebody - whether it's the UK, US or Germany - needs "to stand up".

If you've made it this far, you're obviously pretty interested, so I'll tell you that I had the good fortune to interview Hansen today - and that interview will be featuring in our next podcast. I'll also tell you that tomorrow, our last two defendants, Huw and Will, will be taking the stand, along with Conservative advisor and former Ecologist editor Zac Goldsmith.

For now, I'm off to raise a glass to Meaden, Hansen, the defendants and everyone else who is (ahem) taking a stand.

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