On 10 September 2008, a jury found six climate change protesters not guilty of causing criminal damage during their protest on E.ON's power station tower in Kingsnorth, Kent. A year earlier the protestors had entered Kingsnorth coal-fired power station before scaling the chimney, closing the station and painting Gordon Brown's name down the smokestack. The protest was against E.ON's proposals to build the first new coal-fired power station in the UK at its site in Kingsnorth. E-On claimed the cost of repairing the chimney amounted to £30,000.
Under the Criminal Damage Act 1971 it is an offence for a person, without lawful excuse, intentionally or recklessly to destroy or damage any property belonging to another. The defendants accepted they caused the damage, but claimed that it was lawful for them to damage the chimney in order to protect property in Kent and all around the world which is at the risk of much more serious damage by the consequences of climate change caused by the substantial increase in greenhouse gases, to which the coal fired power stations would make a considerable contribution.
During the eight-day trial, one of the world's leading climate scientists, Professor James Hansen of NASA, gave evidence and spoke authoritatively about the significance of coal in the climate crisis, and called for new coal plants to be built only if they capture and bury their emissions. Hansen summarised a list of facts that he claimed were known by the UK government, by EON, by the fossil fuel industry and by the defendants at the time of their actions in 2007:
- Tipping Points: the climate system is dangerously close to tipping points that could have disastrous consequences.
- Coal's Dominant Role: Coal is the fossil fuel with most responsibility for excess CO2 in the atmosphere today, with coal reserves containing much more potential for CO2 release than do oil or gas.
- Recognised Responsibilities: The UK is one of the nations with most responsibility for anthropogenic CO2 in the atmosphere today; indeed, on a per capita basis it is the most responsible of all nations that are major emitters of CO2.
- Recognised Impacts of Climate Change: The UK government, EON, and the fossil fuel industry were aware of the likely adverse impacts of continuation of coal emissions.
- 'Greenwash': Governments, utilities, and the fossil fuel industry have presented public faces acknowledging the importance of climate change, claiming that they are taking appropriate actions.
The New York Times has included this "Climate Change Defence" in its 8th "Annual List of Ideas" of the most influential ideas that will change our lives.
On the 18 December 2008 Greenpeace confirmed they had received a letter from the Crown Prosecution Service revealing that the Attorney-General was close to referring the Kingsnorth to the Court of Appeal in an effort to remove the defence of 'lawful excuse' from activists.
A final decision by the Attorney-General is expected in weeks. Any subsequent hearing at the Court of Appeal would follow in the spring.