Swallowing a new kind of Twinkie defense, a British jury last week found nine Greenpeace vandals not guilty of causing £30,000 of criminal damage at a coal-fired power plant. The defendants admitted to causing the damage, but claimed that they had a "lawful excuse" since they were attempting to prevent still greater damage: the plant’s contribution to global warming. Witnesses on their behalf included an Inuit leader from Greenland (an odd choice, since global warming would make life more livable there) as as well as scientist James Hansen, who testified that the carbon dioxide emitted by the plant could be responsible for the extinction of 400 species. (Alas, he didn’t say which ones.) The science advisor to Al Gore, Hansen has gained notoriety for publicly claiming that
If we cannot stop the building of more coal-fired power plants, those coal trains will be death trains—no less gruesome than if they were boxcars headed to crematoria, loaded with uncountable irreplaceable species.
The jury ended up buying Greenpeace’s argument, despite the fact that the judge instructed them that a "lawful excuse" defense requires that the property at issue be damaged or destroyed to prevent the immediate harm to the property of another. (The classic example is that of tearing down one row house to prevent a fire from spreading to others.) But even putting aside questions of imminence, and even supposing that the plant’s emissions are a significant contributor to global warming, and even supposing that the vandalism could have had any real effect on those emissions, the crude cost-benefit analysis made by the defendants ignored the potentially huge harm to Britain’s economy were it to suffer a shortage of energy. It also ignored the enormous harm to national security that could come from replacing dirty coal with foreign oil.
But I doubt that the jury was concerned with such geopolitical niceties. Having been bombarded with climate-change scare-mongering from the media, they didn’t even need to hear testimony regarding rising sea levels around Tuvalu or fissures in the Antarctic ice shelf to know that global warming is a very, very bad thing that must be dealt with not only immediately, but ahead of every other problem.
Sadly, this wasn’t the first time that Greenpeace’s extremism has gone unpunished in Britain. In 2000, a British jury found its executive director and 27 fellow environmentalists not guilty after they destroyed a field of genetically modified crops. As in the more recent case, the "activists" were found to have had a lawful excuse.