Friday, January 9, 2009

Property Rights vs. Global Warming

I recently had an interested discussion with a friend (currently getting her PhD in geology/climate studies) who posted the following article on her Facebook page. To summarize, several Greenpeace activists caused $45,000 worth of damage to a powerplant of giant graffiti in an attempt to shut the plant down and therefore negate its impact on global warming. The court ruled that becaue they were doing it to prevent global warming they were let off the hook. Crazy.

I responded and we got into a discussion about the topic (below)...

Not guilty: the Greenpeace activists who used climate change as a legal defence

Protesters cleared of damaging Kingsnorth power station as defence sets precedent for environmental campaigners

Friend's comment on article: "It was the first case in which preventing property damage caused by climate change had been used as part of a "lawful excuse" defence in court. It is now expected to be used more widely by environment groups."

Me: "This is really disturbing... Where is the line between this case and not convicting someone who causes damage to a dealership, sets their neighbor's car on fire or even kills the CEO of an auto manufacturer in the name of stopping global warming. Scary scary stuff."

Friend: "This is a far cry from harming or killing anyone - certainly not comparable, and I don't find the idea of citing climate change in court cases scary. I find this case interesting because it reminds me of the type of psychology used by the Bush administration in declaring a war on terror - they've selected one specific party to hold responsible for a widespread harm caused by many actors. An obvious difference I see here is that the party they've chosen to hold responsible is in fact one of many directly responsible for the harm, whereas the Bush administration's choices had far less direct links. You could call it choosing a scapegoat, whether well- or poorly-chosen."

Me: "I'm not saying that citing climate change in a court case is necessarily wrong (that's a whole other topic!). For example, if someone could prove that power stations were damaging their life by causing global warming that might be an appropriate argument. The thing that scares me is that it appears that in this case private property rights were thrown out because of this "global threat". I don't think that trespassing and causing damage to other's property is ever an appropriate response to a crisis - it only causes unrest. Just so I understand your position: are you saying that invading or damaging private property is an acceptable protest as long as there is no physical harm to a person or people?"

Friend: "No, that's not what I'm saying. I'm saying this is an interesting and complex issue, which is why I posted it, and to be honest, I don't know what I would have chosen if I were on the jury. In other words, I don't have a position, and I think that's fine. That said, the case the defense made was that the actions of this (and other) power plants were causing damage to property (and presumably life) in a number of locations around the globe, as you mentioned, and they were attempting to prevent this. Just as you say the power company's private property rights were thrown out, so one might say the rights of many citizens and countries around the world are being disregarded by major greenhouse gas emitters. Is the action of the group justifiable? I'm not sure, but is anyone else (govt?) doing much to act on this? I'm not convinced there is a right answer to this case, but I think it raises interesting questions. It's not a black-and-white issue."

Me: "I think I understand more what you're saying now. I certainly don't think that the issue of what to do about global warming overall is black and white, but I guess I have to disagree with you and say that in this case I do think the appropriate ruling is clear. If the Greenpeace protesters had sued the power companies for causing rising sea levels, etc, that wouldn't violate anyone's rights and would be a very interesting case that I don't know the answer to. However, I can't see a logical way to rule that $45,000 of damage to private property is an acceptable form of protest without carrying that ruling to other similar cases such as my examples of burning cars, damaging dealerships, etc (if you see a clear difference between these please let me know). If those actions become legal then we may as well resign ourselves to a mob-ruled society where basic rights are not protected. That's what I mean when I say this case is scary. Does that make sense?"

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