When six activists, protesting against climate pollution, scaled a tower at a coal-fired power station in 2007 the resulting court case drew support from the world's leading scientists. Their subsequent acquittal proved historic and changed government policy. Here, the 'Kingsnorth Six' tell their story
- Geraldine Bedell
- The Observer, Sunday 31 May 2009
Six ordinary people. One extraordinary feat of courage and endurance. Twenty thousand tonnes of carbon dioxide belched into the atmosphere in a single day. Twelve members of a jury, reaching a verdict that could change the future of the planet. From these ingredients, Nick Broomfield has fashioned a film that tells the gripping and (the description is unusually literal) life-changing story of the Kingsnorth Six.
When a demonstration at the Kingsnorth power station in north-east Kent in late 2007 led to the arrest of six climate change activists, what had until then seemed a rather dry local planning issue exploded into a story of national and international concern. The verdict at their trial turned out to have far-reaching implications for activism, the future of coal, even the planet.
Now a 20-minute film, A Time Comes, by the much-admired documentary-maker Nick Broomfield, cuts police and Greenpeace footage of the occupation together with news clips and interviews with the activists. What emerges is how ordinary the Kingsnorth Six are - they could be the bloke next door or the woman across the office - but also how brave and tenacious. The film is released just as the government's review of its coal policy is expected and campaigners hope and expect the review will define a seismic shift in official attitudes to carbon emissions.
"I was attracted to making a film about the Kingsnorth Six because they're such everyday people," Broomfield says. "You tend to think of environmental activists as super-fit professionals, but they are modest and understated. I admire the way they were prepared to see it through - to take action for what they believed and take the consequences - and I wanted to make the film immediate, personal, anecdotal.
"I loved the footage of them struggling up a chimney as if in Dante's Inferno. Their story is just a very human one of great courage and great love and belief, which is, I suppose, what all great stories are about."
It is a story that began in October 2007 when a coal-fired power station at the mouth of the river Medway was nearing the end of its natural life. E.On, the German company that owns and operates it, had applied the previous year for planning permission to build a replacement on the site. This would be the first new coal-fired power station in Britain for 30 years, but a string of similar applications was lined up behind. If Kingsnorth went ahead, it was reasonable to assume coal-fired power stations would be built across the country. The government gave every indication it was intending to give permission, though it is widely acknowledged that coal is the single greatest threat to the climate, responsible for about half the fossil fuel carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere. The average Briton emits 11 tonnes of carbon a year; it would take this one hypothetical Brit 1,800 years to emit the equivalent of a day's emissions at Kingsnorth.
So, at 5am on the morning of 8 October, protesters waving placards jostled noisily at the front gates of the power station. While the plant's security guards were distracted, another group of about 30 activists made its way quietly along the sea defences at the rear, cut a padlock and sneaked onto the site. "A security truck with a couple of guys tore up," says Ben Stewart, who was there. "We said we were Greenpeace and we had to shut down the power station because of climate change. They said, 'Good luck. Do it safely.'"
Once inside, the activists scattered in the darkness - some to the pump house, 18 to occupy the conveyor belts that carry the coal to the furnace, five to the chimney that towers 220 metres above the hulking mass of the power station. This last group walked inside, closed a metal roller-door behind them and cut the electricity. Two of them - Stewart and Huw Williams, an experienced caver - had been up the inside of a tower at Didcot power station and they expected to find a similar spiral staircase here. Instead, there was a metal ladder fixed to a wall. The wall and the ladder were almost the height of Canary Wharf.
The five were each carrying 50kg bags holding their supplies, which included climbing ropes, paint, food (pasta, pesto, tinned tomatoes, bread, water, coffee, and a cafetiere - "No instant shit for us," Stewart says) and they'd estimated beforehand that it would take them two-and-a-half hours to reach the top. Without a staircase, it was to take them nine.
"It was the most physically exhausting thing I have ever done," Stewart recalls. 'We were climbing up between the four flues. The CO2 goes up at a temperature of 120 degrees and it was like climbing through a huge radiator - the hottest, dirtiest place you could imagine."
The ladder had a "back-scratcher" - a rudimentary metal cage designed to prevent falls - which meant the space was too narrow for their bags. They had to pull up their kit on ropes, using their body weight to haul them between the five platforms. "Imagine the most tired and in pain you've ever been in and multiply that by a million," says Will Rose, a press photographer, who shot much of the footage Broomfield used in his film.
"We hadn't slept much the night before because we were nervous and in a strange place with a lot of other activists, and after a few hours of climbing, any adrenaline had worn off and we were dehydrated and exhausted. I felt as though I was going to collapse. My arms were aching from pulling on the ropes and my legs were aching from taking the strain. You'd get to a platform and rest for a minute and then have to pull up the bags. You can't stop because you can't let down the rest of the team."
The smokestack was filthy. They had coal dust in their mouths, up their noses. They had to scrape it off like tar. After hours of struggle - "I'm told it was nine but it felt like 12," Stewart says, "a dusty, dark, carcinogenic, hot, horrible experience for hours and hours and hours" - they saw light at the top. They were running at least six hours late. They rested briefly to recover some strength, aware that if they stopped for too long it would get dark. Williams rigged up ropes. Emily Hall, who works for Greenpeace in logistics, mixed paint. Rose shot photographs and film. Stewart spoke to the outside world, including his parents. "You might see me on the news on top of a power station chimney," he warned them. "They said, 'Are you sure that's wise?'"
At 6pm, Kevin Drake, an experienced climber and freelance industrial rope access safety supervisor, went over the side of the smokestack with Hall, who had only been climbing a couple of years, "sporadically". Rose's footage, if you are at all anxious about heights, is sickening: a vertiginous drop down a brick tower, Drake and Hall dangling, tiny figures in dizzying mid-air in the growing gloom.
"It was OK going over," Hall says. "I'd been asked to do it two weeks before so I'd had time to prepare myself mentally. It was later on that it didn't feel so nice, when it was getting dark and starting to rain. I could see the people on the conveyor belts being led away by the police below and that was disheartening. The ropes were really heavy, because they had to be so long, plus we were carrying paint on our backs. Our muscles were already sore from the climb."
It is hard to imagine any of them being in trouble with the law under any other circumstances and for Rose, too, the numbers of police were alarming. "It was cold and windy up there, but the thing that scared me most was the police helicopter that was circling us and the police vans below, with all these little black dots. I've got a huge amount of respect for the police, but it was alarming to think that sooner or later we'd have to come down and face them."
The plan was for Drake and Hall to paint "Gordon Bin It" down the side of the chimney. Drake's main worry was that he was "a bit dyslexic" and may make a spelling mistake. They judged the letter size with a length of knotted rope and from a distance the paint job looks surprisingly professional. "It didn't look so good from close up," Hall says.
They only managed to get as far as "Gordon". By 8pm, the light was failing and they were worried about the climb back up. Tim Hewke, who was co-ordinating from a van on the ground and would eventually be arrested and charged as the sixth member of the team, radioed, urging them to return to the top.
For Hall, getting back up the chimney "was the hardest thing I've ever done. It was a really hard slog, pulling on a rope, and my muscles were exhausted from pulling on ropes all day. I was emotionally drained. My hands were raw from climbing the metal ladder. But Kevin stayed with me. I swore a lot and he whistled and sang a bit and told me I was fine. I knew they were cooking pasta at the top, and I was going to Paris on holiday in a couple of weeks, so I kept repeating to myself, 'Pasta, Paris. Pasta, Paris.' And I knew that not making it wasn't an option".
The pasta and pesto was, by general agreement, one of the best meals anyone had ever eaten. Drake and Hall had intended to go back over the edge the following morning to complete their sign writing, but it turned out that the police in the helicopter, who had been shouting something inaudible at them through a megaphone, were warning that E.On had obtained a high court injunction. They would have to come down.
They decided they were too exhausted to get back safely that night, so they went inside the chimney and slept in the heat and coal dust until 6am. After a breakfast of tinned tomatoes, bread and coffee, they packed up and started back. "It felt OK to come down then," Stewart says. "We felt we'd done something important."
Emerging from the chimney, Hall "felt really proud. So many people had been involved, there had been so much planning and investment, and it was great to be part of it. There was an amazing sense of fulfilment".
The five activists emerged at around 1pm. The police - very pleasant, they all make a point of saying - took them away to their vans, swabbed them for DNA and fingerprinted them. Eventually, they took them to Gillingham police station. "I had to shower naked in front of two policemen," Rose says, "but it was so amazing having a shower, I didn't really care."
All the protesters who had been occupying the conveyor belts had also been arrested. They were charged with aggravated trespass; the six learned that they would also face charges of criminal damage. Hall and Williams were released "by a fluke" that evening with the conveyor belt team. The other four were held in custody for 24 hours.
They had discussed beforehand the possible consequences of the action. "It was unlikely we'd be let off with a parking ticket," Stewart says. Even so, they were surprised by the extent of the criminal damage - £30,000 - said to be the cost of cleaning the tower. "We left absolutely nothing up there," Hall says, "and all they did to clean it up was to paint white boxes over our lettering."
Perhaps, though, they weren't entirely dismayed. Any criminal damage charge for more than £5,000 has to be tried by a jury. "My first thought was, 'I'm going to go to jail,'" Stewart says. "My second was, 'But I'm going to get a jury trial.'" It would be an opportunity to put the climate change case in public.
The months of waiting for the court case were difficult. Criminal damage cases involving similar sums had resulted in prison sentences. "Some days, I felt we'd done the right thing and people would see that and we'd be absolutely fine," Rose says. "On other days, I'd think, 'Oh my God, I'm going to prison for this.' You can see what I look like. I wouldn't last five minutes in prison."
The eminent barrister hired to defend them, Keir Starmer, was made director of public prosecutions a month before the trial, leaving them without a lawyer. Michael Wolkind QC stepped in. "We had a meeting with him," Stewart says, "and asked who else he'd represented. He said, 'The nail bomber, Tony Martin and the 7/7 bombers.' We said, 'Have you ever represented anyone who's not a fascist? And have you ever won a case?'"
The trial opened at Maidstone Crown Court (in Ann Widdecombe's constituency, perhaps not the first place a climate change activist would choose) on 1 September 2008. "Michael Wolkind prepared really diligently," Stewart says, "but his first line to the jury was, 'They care about Tuvalu. Do you too?' And I thought, 'That's it, I'm going down.'"
The standard defence against criminal damage is that by committing the crime, the defendant prevents damage to more valuable property - so it's acceptable to kick down the door of a burning house if you thereby prevent its complete destruction. The argument Wolkind and his team had to make was that shutting down Kingsnorth for 24 hours was a significant contribution to retarding carbon emissions, preventing the worse harm of climate change. They also had to establish that there had been no legal options.
To everyone's surprise, one of the world's leading climate change scientists, Professor James Hansen, responded to an email from Joss Garman, Greenpeace's coal campaigner, by saying he would testify on behalf of the Six. Hansen, whom Garman describes as "a rock star of climate change", has been director of the Nasa Goddard Institute for Space Studies for the past 20 years, an adviser to US presidents, and was the first person to testify to Congress on the seriousness of climate change. While in the UK, he met the prime minister and the foreign secretary, because that is the kind of person he is, but his reason for coming was to testify in a small courtroom in Kent. The nub of his argument was that every tonne of carbon counts, so that while it may not be possible to pinpoint the extinction of one species to a particular molecule of carbon, it is reasonable to assert that Kingsnorth alone would lead to the extinction of 400 species over its lifetime.
Both Geoff Meaden, professor of geography at Canterbury Christ Church University, and Hansen produced maps showing the impact of rising sea levels on the Kent coastline, the world's leading climate scientist giving a private seminar to the jury about the future of their area. Inuit leader Aqqaluk Lynge described the melting of polar ice and its impact on Inuit homes and food supplies.
Gordon Brown had just changed his mind about an autumn election; Zac Goldsmith argued that this had closed the normal democratic channels, especially given that it had recently been estimated that the world was a mere 100 months away from a climate tipping point. Jennifer Morgan, a former adviser to Tony Blair and an expert on international climate negotiations, said the G8 had failed to deliver significant progress in preventing catastrophic change.
The defence's arguments were given a boost by the 2006 Stern review for the British government, which put a price on climate change for the first time, calculating that each tonne of carbon causes $85 worth of damage. This means that shutting down Kingsnorth for one day may have prevented around £1m of damage.
Each of the defendants had prevented 3,300 tonnes of carbon from entering the atmosphere (their share of a normal Kingsnorth day's output). It would have taken them 300 years of zero-carbon living apiece to have had an equivalent impact.
They all had to give evidence. "It was petrifying," Stewart says. "I kept thinking if I buggered it up I'd be letting down my fellow defendants and ruining the chances of making this important statement. As the case went on and the evidence piled up, and it was such a compelling story, so emotional, I began to think we might get three of the jury not to convict - which, of course, would get us off. I started to think we might even get five."
The jury was discharged at 10am on Tuesday 9 September. They did not return their verdict that day and it was difficult for the Six to sleep that night. "I managed to get through the trial fairly well, to hold my composure," Rose says. "Then about an hour before the verdict on Wednesday, I almost had a blackout. I was shaking, my heart was racing, my breath was short. I kept going back over everything, all the evidence. It was like seeing your life before you die."
"So much depended on that first utterance - 'N' for not guilty or 'G' for guilty," Stewart says. "As soon as the foreman went 'N', the court erupted." His mother, in the public gallery, burst into tears. So did Hall. There was elation in the Greenpeace offices, where everyone was gathered round director John Sauven's phone, waiting for Stewart's text; and in New Zealand, where Hall is from; in the Northumbrian coal mining village where Rose grew up; and especially among all the other activists who had been at Kingsnorth.
That night, the 10 o'clock news reported that a government decision on the future of Kingsnorth had been postponed. That this was a U-turn is not in doubt. E.On had already gone out to tender for construction of the new plant. Exchanges between the company and the civil servants in the Department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR), obtained by Greenpeace under Freedom of Information legislation, prove that the government had been drawing up conditions for approval of Kingsnorth and was prepared to be conciliatory about how far these related to climate change.
Within a month of the verdict, business secretary John Hutton was reshuffled and responsibility for energy moved from BERR to the new Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), which put energy where it belongs, not with business, but with the environment. The new secretary of state was Ed Miliband who, with David Miliband and Hilary Benn, had previously opposed a new Kingsnorth in cabinet.
The government's previous position had been that the new plant would have to be "carbon capture and storage [CCS]-ready". In other words, whenever technology to capture and bury carbon emissions became feasible, Kingsnorth must be able to plug it in. For Greenpeace, this was meaningless - "It's like saying my garage is Ferrari-ready," Stewart says. CCS technology does exist, but has never been tried at scale. It may not work. It certainly may not be financially viable for a huge power plant.
The new policy, as articulated by Ed Miliband in April, complete with a neat soundbite - "The era of new unabated coal has come to an end" - is that no new coal-fired power station will be allowed unless it captures the carbon from 400 megawatts straight away. In the case of Kingsnorth, this would represent about a quarter of its output. And by 2025, Kingsnorth would have to have CCS technology for its entire output.
Many questions remain to be answered. The power companies are now lobbying fiercely, arguing that it makes no sense for them to build power plants that could be inoperable after 2025 if the technology doesn't work or proves to be unaffordable. They have the support of some of the civil servants who moved across from BERR and some members of the cabinet. Greenpeace, meanwhile, doesn't want to see a new plant that guarantees only that a quarter of emissions will be captured; it would rather the CCS experiment was tried on an existing plant.
Results of a consultation on a new coal policy are due from DECC imminently. Miliband will have to decide whether CCS is a promising enough technology to justify public investment and, if so, what form it will take. Carbon can be captured before combustion, which is a cleaner method, or after, which has the advantage that the technology can be fitted to existing power stations and potentially sold abroad.
Greenpeace's position is that there should be limits on carbon emissions for all power stations (which it would set currently at 350g of CO2 per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated and reduce in time as the technology develops). While CCS, certainly pre-combustion, would meet that proposed standard, the technology is not proven and Greenpeace would prefer to rely on renewables.
These are highly technical questions. What is clear, even to those of us who are clueless about the science of carbon capture or unqualified to judge whether the energy gap can be bridged without coal, is that Kingsnorth is now unlikely to go ahead without offering some hope for climate change. The publicity generated at the plant in October 2007 and the subsequent verdict has almost certainly (as long as Miliband doesn't crack) paved the way to a more thoughtful energy policy which has climate change at its heart rather than as bolt-on, entirely dispensable rhetoric.
In this, the bravery of the Kingsnorth Six was vital. What they have shown is that direct action can be a legitimate form of political action. Properly carried out, it can muster public support and change people's minds. It can even shift government policy. In years to come, we may have cause to thank these sympathetic, courageous and ordinary individuals. It's not a bad result from a day and night up a dirty chimney. They all think now that the climb was worth it.
Power to the people
They came, they climbed, they conquered
German company E.On applies for planning permission to replace the existing plant at Kingsnorth in Kent with the first new coal-fired station in Britain for 30 years. The plant would produce an estimated 19,800 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions every day.
Environmental activists hold a demonstration at Kingsnorth. Around 30 get on site and shut down the plant; five scale the inside of the towers and paint a giant message on the outside. All are arrested. The five who scaled the tower and the activist who coordinated the ascent from the ground are charged with causing criminal damage of £30,000.
Medway council votes to allow building to go ahead at Kingsnorth but recommends a public inquiry.
The Royal Society criticises the government policy on coal, saying that any new coal-fired power stations unable to capture and bury 90% of its carbon emissions by 2020 s hould be closed.
The head of the government's sustainable development commission, Sir Jonathon Porritt, tells the secretary of state that a new generation of coal plants would "destroy the overall credibility of the government's climate change programme".
Environmental activists hold a climate camp outside Kingsnorth for 10 days. Hundreds are arrested while taking direct action against the plant.
The trial of the Kingsnorth Six - those involved in the scaling of the tower - takes place. Professor James Hansen, director of the Nasa Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the first person to testify to Congress about the threat of climate change, gives evidence on their behalf. All are acquitted.
The committee on climate change finds that coal stations should be expected to capture and bury all of their carbon emissions by the early 2020s.
Ed Miliband, secretary of state for the newly created Department of Energy and Climate Change, announces a change of policy on coal, ruling out unabated coal stations.
The Kingsnorth Six
Kevin Drake, 44, lives in a Wiltshire village with his wife and daughter. He works as a rope access safety supervisor and loves the outdoor life, including caving, camping, rock climbing and body boarding. He has been volunteering for Greenpeace for 10 years.
Williams, 41, is a former shepherd and sign writer from Northamptonshire, and is a keen caver, touring cyclist and narrowboat owner. He has been volunteering with Greenpeace for 15 years and his interests include rural crafts and wildlife watching. He is now cycling to Namibia with his partner and is somewhere outside Tangier.
Born in Hawkes Bay, New Zealand, Hall left home to travel in 1996. She lives in London, works for Greenpeace in logistics and learnt to climb in order to get more involved in direct action. "My mum was incredibly worried throughout the trial. I rang to tell her the verdict straight away. I also rang my boyfriend, who was relieved because he had been worried that he'd have to bust me out of jail."
Tim Hewke co-ordinated the Kingsnorth action from the ground. He is in his 40s and has worked for Greenpeace for 13 years as a researcher. He lives in Harrietsham, Kent, and likes "wining and dining, photography and growing vegetables - and recently won the prize for the tallest sunflower in Chegworth.
Stewart, 35, is a law graduate from Lyminge, near Canterbury. He is head of media at Greenpeace UK, and a former Guardian Young Journalist of the Year for an interview he conducted with Michael Howard. The then-home secretary lost his temper and threw Stewart out of his office after a question about the Criminal Justice Bill. He has met Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to discuss green issues.
Rose, 29, grew up in Ashington, Northumberland. "The town was completely supported by coal. My grandfathers worked down the pits and my father was an engineer in the industry. It was a big thing for me to find out that coal was a bad thing." A press photographer, he now lives in London and works for Greenpeace and other NGOs: "I wanted to use my skills for something I believe in."