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Five scientists who participated in an Extinction Rebellion action against fossil fuel exploration were acquitted of related charges by a London-based court on October 21, 2022. (Photo: Aaron Thierry/Twitter)

UK Court Acquits Climate Scientists Who Glued Their Hands to Government Building

"The magistrates acknowledged that we were expressing our right to protest, which should be the cornerstone of any democracy," one defendant said while noting the "raft of oppressive laws against legitimate protests being adopted in the U.K."

Jessica Corbett

Climate action advocates around the world on Friday celebrated a London-based court's acquittal of five scientists who in April glued research and their own hands to a U.K. government building.

"With knowledge comes responsibility and more and more scientists are mobilizing in civil disobedience around the world as we are running out of time."

The members of Scientists for Extinction Rebellion (XR) faced charges of criminal damage for their nonviolent civil disobedience at the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) building to stress the danger of new fossil fuel exploration.

"The rush for new oil and gas being enabled by the U.K. government is completely at odds with what the scientific research is telling us needs to happen," defendant Stuart Capstick said Friday. "The consequences of ignoring that science will be devastating climate impacts that threaten the lives and well-being of people around the world."

"Under normal circumstances, the last thing I would want to do is glue myself to a window, be arrested, and put on trial," he added. "Unfortunately, this type of action seems to be one of the few ways left to draw attention to the urgency and scale of action needed to tackle the climate crisis."

XR highlighted in a statement that the scientists, who also wrote messages in chalk spray, "took great care not to cause any lasting damage by using easily washable and removable substances," and "the prosecution could not produce any evidence of the alleged damage or actual costs" to clean up.

Four other scientists who participated were tried separately and found guilty in September. One of them, Colin Davis, said Friday that "the chalk I sprayed on the windows of the publicly owned BEIS department building needed only a damp cloth to wipe away, unlike the millions of tonnes of greenhouse gas pollution that will be dumped into the atmosphere if the U.K. government proceeds with its plan to license new oil and gas fields in the North Sea."

"Those gases will persist for hundreds of years and will heat our planet even more, directly contributing to millions of deaths from heatwaves, flooding, extreme weather events, and crop failure," he warned. "We need the government to start listening to the warnings coming from scientists and bodies such as the United Nations and the International Energy Agency."

Defendant Abi Perrin, who was acquitted, said that "when governments ignore the warnings of the world's scientists and even their own climate pledges, it's hard not to feel desperate. I took part in this peaceful and nondestructive protest action in the hope that it would help raise the alarm about policies that exacerbate the loss, suffering, and violence already being experienced around the world."

Similarly noting that "scientists have been sounding the alarm for decades but have been ignored by governments," fellow defendant Emma Smart declared that "with knowledge comes responsibility and more and more scientists are mobilizing in civil disobedience around the world as we are running out of time."

In a series of tweets about the court's decision, defendant Aaron Thierry said that "if there are scientists reading this who are considering taking part in civil disobedience, or still uncertain but want to know more, then please check out our recent article" in the journal Nature Climate Change, which argues that the time is now for experts to join activist efforts.

The court's decision comes as world leaders prepare for the COP27 climate summit in Egypt next month and as the U.K. government is in turmoil following the Thursday resignation of Conservative Prime Minister Liz Truss.

The acquittal also comes as British policymakers crack down on protests, from the recently enacted Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Act 2022 to an ongoing push for the Public Order Bill.

"In worrying echoes of the tendency towards authoritarian suppression of protest in countries like Hungary and Russia, it is unclear what will happen to the ability of citizens to make their concerns heard, when the only form of protest allowed in the U.K. will be obedient and approved marches on the street," XR said.

Defendant Caroline Vincent also recognized that reality, saying that "with a raft of oppressive laws against legitimate protests being adopted in the U.K., it is becoming more and more difficult for the voice of reason to be heard."

"The government would rather prosecute scientists and suppress legitimate protests than... act on the advice they receive from scientists and their own advisers," she continued. "But today, the magistrates acknowledged that we were expressing our right to protest, which should be the cornerstone of any democracy."

The same day as the BEIS protest, XR campaigners also occupied the London headquarters of oil giant Shell. Five people arrested for aggravated trespass in connection with the latter action had their charges dropped on Friday.

"I am glad that our attempts to inform Shell employees of the danger that their employer poses to our collective future, and to encourage them to take action, have resulted in all criminal charges against us being dropped," said Dr. Elanor Lewis-Holmes, a clinical psychologist.

"Shell is a criminal organization, who have been found guilty of numerous climate-related crimes such as destructive oil spills in the Niger Delta and highly inadequate reductions in CO2 emissions," she added. "If left unchecked, 1.6% of the entire world's carbon budget will be used up by this one company in the next eight years."

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