Michael Bird, 32, nature conservation ranger from Leeds
Michael was arrested on 7th October 2019 at Millbank during the 2019 October Rebellion and charged with Obstruction of the Highway. He was tried at City of London Magistrates’ Court on 13th April 2021.
Michael’s court statement, April 2021
Climate change poses an imminent threat to myself and my community and I am appalled at the fatal effects of it that we are seeing borne out right now around the world. More moderate courses of action have been ignored, ridiculed or brushed off by councils, government, corporations and the public for decades. Therefore, I took part in the Extinction Rebellion protests in London in October 2019 as an act of desperation and necessity in the face of the climate emergency.
Before putting forward my defence of necessity, I would like to bring the court’s attention to Articles 10 and 11 of the Human Rights Act 1998, which cover the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly. I was exercising these rights on the 7th October 2019 in Dean Stanley Street as part of Extinction Rebellion, but would like to argue that I was not in fact obstructing the highway. The ‘Facts of Offence’ in the Case Summary state that after arriving at the Millbank junction with Dean Stanley Street at 09:40, ‘PS Miller deemed it was necessary for some cones/signage to be put in place further up Dean Stanley Street in order to prevent any vehicles from committing into the road as there was no safe way through.’ I would like to argue then that at the time of my arrest 11 minutes later by PC Enticknap, that these cones placed further up the road by the police officers present were in fact obstructing the free passage along the highway of Dean Stanley Street, rather than myself.
From recollection, I did not move the bench into the road, only sat on it, and was then sat on the bench for two or three minutes before being approached by PC Enticknap at 09:50. Therefore, Dean Stanley Street was coned off at one end by the police before I sat on the bench.d
As stated in the case of Nagy vs. Weston (1965) “Whether or not the user amounting to an obstruction is or is not an unreasonable use of the highway is a question of fact. It depends on all the circumstances, including the length of time the obstruction continues, the place where it occurs, the purpose for which it is done, and, of course, whether it does in fact cause an actual obstruction as opposed to a potential obstruction”. I would argue that no actual obstruction occurred in my case, due to the placing of cones/signage by the police further up Dean Stanley Street and the other facts I have just outlined.
Furthermore, I would like to draw attention to the case of Director of Public Prosecutions vs Zeigler (2019) which makes a clear statement that the right to protest as part of the Human Rights Act does include the right to do so on the highway and that there is no primacy of the rights of road users over the rights of protesters.
I will now outline my defence of necessity, which is rooted in the scientific evidence for human induced climate change and the necessity for me to act upon the imminent threat to my life, and the lives of others, that is a result of this. There is already a precedent for the defence of necessity in the recent protest case of Angela Ditchfield, who was found not guilty of criminal damage at Cambridge Magistrates Court on 30th October 2019. In finding Ms Ditchfield not guilty the lay bench said she had acted ‘to protect land and homes under threat from climate change, believing that immediate protection was necessary.’
I have gradually educated myself about the degradation of nature and our environment since my early twenties, and as I became increasingly concerned, have tried many ways to raise the alarm about this damage or combat it directly through changing my own work and lifestyle.
Nine years ago I felt compelled to change my career path to begin volunteering full-time in wildlife conservation and have worked in the industry ever since. It has become my vocation and my passion, and in a very small way my work benefits the environment each day. However, the combined efforts of all the conservation organisations in the UK are still nowhere near enough to stop the human-made mass extinctions that we are facing amongst animal populations. For example, the cross-organisation ‘Birds of Conservation Concern 4’ reports that from 2009 to 2015, the red list that highlights critically endangered birds in the UK, grew by 15 well-known species including puffins and nightingales. The Mammal Society reports that more generally 1 in 4 species in Britain is currently threatened with extinction. This is a human made tragedy that must be addressed immediately and something that causes me grief every single day. As the secretary general of the UN, Antonio Guterres, said in a speech in December 2020 “Let’s face facts, the state of our planet is broken. Humanity is waging war on nature. This is suicidal. Nature always strikes back, and is doing so with gathering force and fury. Biodiversity is collapsing, deserts are spreading, oceans are choking with plastic waste – in 30 years there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.”
As well as choosing a career in wildlife conservation which allows me to take tangible, positive action against environmental destruction, I spend a lot of my spare time trying to raise awareness about these issues through activism too. Over the years I have attended numerous protests and demonstrations against the fracking industry, have written countless letters to MPs, spent time talking to the general public at Extinction Rebellion protests, signed petitions and donated money to conservation and environmental activist organisations. Lifestyle changes designed to reduce my own carbon footprint have also included refusing to fly for the last seven years, not owning a car for the last four years and eating a plant based diet.
However, minimising my own impact on the planet is not enough, and individuals in general cannot effectively halt climate change through altering their own behaviour, although it obviously contributes. This major change has to come from governments, and the UK government is still actively resisting this change through the policies it pursues. By means of collective action then, Extinction Rebellion has pushed climate change to the top of the government agenda at various points over the last two years. Through mass peaceful protest, Extinction Rebellion directly convinced Parliament and local authorities to declare a climate emergency in 2019 and prompted citizen’s assemblies on climate change in many local authorities. This is part of the reason I felt compelled to join the protest in October 2019, as I could finally see significant progress on climate change from the UK government where previously there had been scant acknowledgement of change being needed at all. By disrupting the usual processes of government and society that directly cause this environmental damage, people were forced to listen and act upon the truth of the climate emergency both on a personal and governmental level.
In 2015 Kirkstall, the area of Leeds that I live in, experienced its worst ever floods with over 3,500 properties being damaged including 672 businesses. I spent days helping with the clean-up operation and saw the devastation and suffering first hand. People’s livelihoods, possessions and homes were lost and my area is still recovering from the impact. In 2018 the Environment Agency released an official warning that intense flooding has become normalised in the last ten years as a direct result of extreme weather events caused by climate change, and that this will continue. Therefore, I see my actions at the October 2019 Extinction Rebellion protest as directly linked and proportionate to the threat that climate change induced severe flooding is posing to my way of life and my community. By trying to raise awareness through protest about climate change as an imminent threat to our lives in the UK, I feel I was performing my moral duty to protect my fellow citizens and community.
Similarly, air pollution in Leeds was at illegal levels as defined by the World Health Organisation before the Coronavirus pandemic in January 2020, being worse than London and linked to one in every 22 deaths amongst adults in Leeds annually. Leeds City Council however scrapped the proposed Clean Air Zone in 2020 and has just recently approved the planning application to expand Leeds Bradford Airport, with flights set to almost double if the work goes ahead, doubling air pollution too. I suffer from asthma, and take medication daily to control my condition, which is being worsened by the inaction of Leeds City Council despite their declaration of a climate emergency in 2019 and their hollow promise to be carbon neutral by 2030. The very air that I breathe in Leeds is not safe to inhale due to the inaction of government and my local authority. The same is true in London where last December an inquest into the death of 9 year-old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah from an asthma attack found that air pollution made a ‘material contribution’ to her death, with her actual cause of death being listed as air pollution in a landmark case at Southwark Crown Court. This proves to me that nowhere near enough is being done to tackle the unnecessary deaths of thousands of people around the UK every year from air pollution, something which also contributes directly to climate change. A recent report from the Green Alliance think tank highlights the disparity between Northern and Southern England in terms of local authority’s action on air quality and makes recommendations that ‘by tackling clean air, cities would benefit from a healthier environment, saving thousands of lives and reducing long-term illness for millions of people. This would have a huge knock-on economic benefit, from reduced hospital admissions and GP visits to more active lifestyles and fewer sick days.’ However, despite these obvious benefits, we are still seeing chronic stalling on this issue. I believe this makes my protest attempt in October 2019 to raise the alarm about government inaction on air pollution and climate change a necessity for my own health, and the health of the nation, due to the immediate threat that breathing polluted air poses. I have written to my local MP about this issue, stopped polluting the air myself by riding a bicycle everywhere and encouraged others to do the same. Aside from the peaceful protest I engaged in as part of Extinction Rebellion, what else can I do to avoid breathing poisonous air in the city I live in? I feel that no other options are available to me.
It is not just the imminent threat to my own health and local environment that I feel makes protesting a necessity, it is the devastating effects of human induced climate change already being felt by people all over the world. The 30 million people that live in Jakarta, Indonesia are experiencing their homes sinking due to climate change induced sea level rises, and 66 people died in 2020 due to flooding in the city. 30 people were killed in the unprecedented Californian wildfires in 2020, in a state that has experienced 15 of its 20 largest wildfires on record since the year 2000. In 2016, 900 people died and 1.5 million required humanitarian aid in Haiti due to the effects of Hurricane Matthew, a storm that would not have been so destructive if sea levels and temperatures had not risen due to climate change over the last decades. These current impacts are just the tip of the gradually melting iceberg, and do not take into account the hundreds of thousands of already displaced people who have become climate refugees, the effects of heatwave induced famines and droughts, the spread of disease such as dengue fever due to hotter, wetter weather, resource conflicts and many other disastrous consequences. The current effects of climate change are devastating, but projected to get far worse if our behaviour does not alter as a species.
As such, surprising and prominent people in our society are now coming forward to demand action on climate change due to the projected impacts, such as the former governor of the bank of England, Mark Carney. Drawing parallels between climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic, he recently said “When you look at climate change from a human mortality perspective, it will be the equivalent of a coronavirus crisis every year from the middle of this century, and every year, not just a one-off event. So it is an issue that needs to be addressed now.” The difference between the two however is that self-isolating from or waiting out the impacts of climate change is not an option, and this is why I was spreading awareness by protesting in 2019, because we must take action immediately.
The idea that we are condemning future generations to unimaginable suffering in this way has really hit home for me being involved in my four-year old niece’s upbringing. Five of my friends have had children in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic too, and the idea that the current chaos and upheaval, and far worse, may become this new generation’s normality should galvanise us all to take immediate action. I believe that raising the alarm about the seriousness of the climate emergency is the duty of every one of us, and by failing to take heed of the science, both governments and individuals are complicit in this great crime against our current populations and future generations. Indeed, in an article published in January 2021 in Frontiers In Conservation top scientists stated that ’The scale of the threats to the biosphere and all its lifeforms—including humanity—is in fact so great that it is difficult to grasp for even well-informed experts.’
I protested with Extinction Rebellion out of concern and love for all life on earth and if this means short-term disruption to a system that is destroying life, ecosystems and our planet as a whole then we are doing something right. Your honour, I respect that you became a magistrate because you value justice. This same system that promotes the destruction of the natural world through over consumption of resources in the pursuit of economic growth may compel you to find me guilty. If you find me not guilty the system begins to change and this is what is so badly needed to avert a climate crisis and allow truth and justice to prevail.”
Photo credit: Helena Smith