November 04, 2008 | Graham

Climate law divergence

Today in Ipswich three Greenpeace activists were fined $500 each and ordered to pay damages between them for $23,000 worth of damage to a smoke stack at Swanbank Power Station. They had scaled the stack and painted the words “Go Solar” on it in July as a protest against the greenhouse gases being emitted by the power station.
In September three Greenpeace activists were acquitted in Britain for a similar act. The Guardian led the story with “Six Greenpeace climate change activists have been cleared of causing £30,000 of criminal damage at a coal-fired power station in a verdict that is expected to embarrass the government and lead to more direct action protests against energy companies.”
So why wasn’t the precedent followed in Australia? Afterall, decisions in a British court create precedents in an Australian court, although not necessarily of the same strength as precedents from domestic courts.
I wasn’t in the court to hear, so I can’t be sure, but there are a few pointers as to what is different here.
The Greenpeace activists in Australia pleaded guilty. That indicates either that Australian statute law on this point is different to the UK, or that no-one was prepared to take the financial risk that it wasn’t and fund a defence.
Another difference is that this case was heard in a magistrates court before a single magistrate, whereas the UK case was a jury trial where the jury made the crucial finding. So the UK result may have been more a concern by their peers for the financial well-being of the protesters, rather than a real judgement on the risks of anthropogenic climate change.
It certainly makes an interesting study in contrasts and suggests that power suppliers in Australia can sleep a little more easily than their peers in the UK.

Posted by Graham at 8:17 pm | Comments (10) |
Filed under: Environment


  1. They received a far lighter punishment than they deserved.

    Comment by Mr. Right — November 5, 2008 @ 10:32 am

  2. I can help out a little there. I am one of the activists involved in the Swanbank action and appeared in court yesterday.
    All of the activists had advised our lawyers that we intended to plead guilty to the charges we eventually faced months before the hearing actually took place.
    I would put this down to a difference of legal strategy and approach between us and those involved in the UK protest. Whether there is a different legal climate in Australia hasn’t really been tested as yet but the acknowledgment of the magistrate that we were essentially acting for a good cause (and similar comments from other magistrates I have heard deliberating on other climate-related protests) suggests that the legal profession gets this issue.
    Another difference I would like to point out is that (at least I observe) there is a rising culture of climate change activism in Australia. 29 people were arrested at a protest at Bayswater power station in the Hunter Valley last weekend and I could roll off a list of actions that Greenpeace, other organizations, community groups and folk banding together to act in the past year. I could well be missing a lot from overseas, but this seems fairly unique and I think the leniency often used by our legal system reflects this emerging culture of activism.
    Cheers for the post – I found your thoughts quite interesting and it’s got me thinking too.

    Comment by Julien Vincent — November 5, 2008 @ 10:53 am

  3. Thanks for your post Julien. So, are you saying that you honestly believed you had broken the law (accepting that the civil disobedience was in what you saw as a good cause), so you pleaded guilty because that was your view? And that you then argued the goodness of your cause in mitigation of a possibly much harsher sentence?

    Comment by Graham Young — November 5, 2008 @ 11:54 am

  4. I am no lawyer but I don’t think any judgement in a UK
    court after 1/1/1901
    has any weight in Australia.
    The court may take note of an argument in
    a UK court but that would be the limit.
    I think this is why precedents are always
    19th century and earlier.

    Comment by Barry — November 5, 2008 @ 3:10 pm

  5. Hi Graham,
    You pretty much hit the nail on the head. The magistrate took a range of things into consideration, one of which was the cause that motivated the protest. A few media articles have included this, I’ve got a link to one here:
    The Queensland Times had a print article today that quoted the magistrate as having said ours was a “political point made in a grand way”.
    Our references also made mention of the urgency of acting on climate change as the motivation for taking this action, so it featured prominently in the hearing. And not to trumpet ourselves too much, but to spend a freezing night over 100 metres above the ground, it would be pretty hard to assert that our motivation was personal gain.
    So yep, we were happy to plead guilty to the charges but it’s certainly fair to say that the reason behind our protest factored in the final sentencing.
    Hope that’s useful. Cheers,

    Comment by Julien — November 5, 2008 @ 4:31 pm

  6. The Greenpeace case in the UK didn’t set a legal precedent in the UK, let alone elsewhere.

    Comment by Paul Biggs — November 5, 2008 @ 7:06 pm

  7. “They received a far lighter punishment than they deserved.”
    Modern civilization soon breaks down without a regular energy supply. Public goodwill and tolerance will rapidly disappear once powercuts begin. The consequences of being caught disrupting the power supply would then be very, very serious; expect massive fines or imprisonment (assuming a mob don’t get you first).

    Comment by Adam G — November 6, 2008 @ 2:27 am

  8. So, Adam G, just what makes you so sure that the oresent energy supply is like the Magic Pudding and is going to last forever?
    Your description is precisely what is expected to happen under a “business as usual” pattern that doesn’t recognise peak oil.
    Alternative sources of power must be in place *before* peak oil happens.

    Comment by Lesley de Voil — November 6, 2008 @ 6:58 pm

  9. Lesley – no one said anything will last forever. We have hundreds of years supply of coal. Peak oil is a self-fulfilling prophecy if exploitation of new reserves is obstructed.
    The point is that the world is energy dependent, and until we have viable replacements for oil, coal and gas, there is no choice but continue to use them for the bulk of our energy needs.
    The trick is not to waste $trillions on the impossible task of controlling the weather/climate, but to keep economies strong so that they are best placed to research and develop viable alternatives so that they are available for when they are actually needed.

    Comment by Paul Biggs — November 7, 2008 @ 8:41 pm

  10. Paul, it took many thousands of years to lay down the forests that are now oil or coal. We are putting back into the atmosphere the major part of that in two centuries. You think the ecosystem is just going keep going until we find some sort of replacement?
    Your last sentence implies that you see even coal running out sometime. My point is that by the time of its putative expiry, there will have been a monumental change in atmospheric conditions, that there could well be few people around to implement your “viable alternatives.”

    Comment by Lesley de Voil — November 8, 2008 @ 2:03 pm

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