The acclaimed Welsh writer Tom Bullough was arrested during the ‘September Rebellion’ of 2020 for failing to comply with Section 14 of the Public Order Act. He sat peacefully on the road in Parliament Square for about an hour, holding a piece of paper reading ‘Support the CEE Bill’ – the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill tabled by Green Party MP Caroline Lucas – and didn’t move when asked to by police. He damaged or injured nothing and nobody.
In April 2021, he appeared at the City of London Magistrates’ Court, where he gave a not guilty plea – largely to be able to read a defence statement – but was found guilty, and given a fine and a nine-month suspended sentence. Below is an edited version of his statement to the court, the full version of which is on his website. Another edited version was published by Writers Rebel, and it is included in his superb 2023 non-fiction work Sarn Helen.
Why republish this now, several years later? After a summer and now an autumn of extreme climate events globally, the climate and ecological emergency still gets subsumed by everything else that’s happening, as if it’s not an emergency. This seems to apply in Wales at least as much as elsewhere. We want to publish voices in or of Wales speaking about it as much as possible, regardless of whether a piece is ‘new’. It’s new to anyone who’s never read it. And heaven knows it remains ‘topical’. Indeed, the world is already warming more quickly than was predicted when this was first written, not so long ago.
April 2021: corals
My name, under regular circumstances, is Tom. I am 45 years old: a writer and a tutor in Creative Writing. I have two parents of retirement age. I have two children of primary school age. I am a member of Extinction Rebellion.
One problem with speaking about the climate and ecological crisis is that it impacts everyone and everything. It is basically impossible, through focusing on a single aspect or related event, to give any real sense of its extent, its severity, its interconnectedness. I would, however, like briefly to try.
At present, due to human emissions of greenhouse gases – principally, carbon dioxide and methane – the average global temperature is about 1.2°C above the pre-industrial level. This has many ramifications, but among them is that the world’s coral reefs have experienced a series of extreme heat events, as a result of which about 50% have been irrecoverably bleached. That is to say, the corals, the animals which create and maintain these structures, have been killed.
When global temperatures reach 1.5°C above the pre-industrial average then 70-90% of corals will have been killed. When global temperatures reach 2°C above the pre-industrial average, excepting some scientific miracle, 99% of the world’s corals – effectively, all of them – will have been lost.
These are figures from the special report on Global Warming of 1.5°C published in 2018 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Simply in itself, to me at least, this is horrifying. Corals appear in the fossil record more than 400 million years ago. They have evolved into their current, reef-building form over the past 25 million years. And, within two or three human generations, we will have destroyed them all.
But corals, of course, are more than just corals. Their reefs are the basis for some of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet – rivalling the rainforests. Their reefs directly support at least a million other species: from algae and sponges, through crabs, lobsters, sea urchins, and molluscs, to fully 25% of all species of marine fish.
And this wealth of life, of course, does not exist in isolation. It extends into a multitude of food chains, which can spread far from the reef itself.
Take Australia’s Great Barrier Reef which, in 2020, suffered its third mass bleaching event in five years. Besides such species as I have already mentioned, it supports 30 species of cetacean, including dugongs, humpback whales, and Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins. It also supports six species of sea turtle, and about 125 species of skate, stingray, and shark, including the whale shark. It supports, to a significant extent, 215 species of bird, including the roseate tern and the white-bellied sea eagle.
There are the fisheries too, whose food chains originate in coral reefs. And which, to quote the International Union for Conservation of Nature, “directly support over 500 million people worldwide, mostly in poor countries”.
Then there is coral reef tourism, whose global value the journal Marine Policy has estimated at nearly US$36bn per year. And, more critically still, there is the issue of coastal protection. As the World Wildlife Fund’s 2018 Living Planet Report explains: “Nearly 200 million people depend on coral reefs to protect them from storm surges and waves.” As the corals die, so their reefs collapse, so that protection is permanently lost: a protection that will be all the more needed over the coming years.
2021 to 2100: Edwyn and Alice
My son Edwyn is 11 years old. Edwyn is a kind, sharp, long-limbed boy, athletic in a way that I never have been, taller than I was at his age. In the mornings, Edwyn likes to get up before me, to creep downstairs and hide to make me jump when I come for my tea. This amuses him endlessly. After this, in the spring and the summer, the two of us will often go and walk in the lanes and test one another on the flowers in the hedgerows. At the moment, he is fascinated by the folk guitarist Richard Thompson – although, these past few weeks, he has also become interested in evolution, especially the famous story of the peppered moth, and in Welsh history, especially the circumstances around the death of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd.
His sister, Alice, is 8 years old. There are times when I think that I am exaggerating when I say that Alice never stops singing, but this is more or less the case. Unlike Edwyn, Alice does not like the mornings, but you know when she wakes up because the singing starts: a slightly husky voice, rich with vibrato, powerful enough to be heard throughout the house. She makes up her own songs, as she always has, and her songs are beautiful, perfectly pitched. She is fiery, imaginative, often stroppy, very ticklish, very keen on cuddling and very, very sociable. When her hair is tied in a bun, she resembles Little My from the Moomin stories.
Our emissions of greenhouse gases have, in effect, wrapped the earth in insulation – and the aggregate greenhouse gases, the total amount that we emit, that is the insulation’s total thickness. Were we to stop emitting all greenhouse gases tomorrow, the earth would not simply cease to heat; it would continue to heat, at least by another 0.2°C. The other thing, of course, is that we are not stopping our emissions of greenhouse gases. The Covid-19 pandemic notwithstanding, global emissions have not yet even peaked. Indeed, 2021 is expected to see the second highest increase in greenhouse gas emissions in history.
It is for reasons such as these that a 2017 study published by the Nature journal Nature Climate Change gives us a 1% chance of stabilising our climate at 1.5°C and a 5% chance of stabilising our climate at 2°C. Such probabilities are not ‘if’, but ‘when’.
In 2050, Alice will be 38 and Edwyn 41 – close to the age I am now. On current trends, we will long have exceeded the IPCC’s ‘safe’ upper limit of 1.5°C. We will have reached 2°C and, according to recent analysis from the Institute for Economics and Peace, impacts compounded by this heating will have displaced 1.2bn people from their homes: children, women, and men, people like ourselves.
By 2070, when Alice will be 58 and Edwyn 61, we will very likely have reached 3°C. A study, published in the American Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that 3°C will leave about a third of the world’s population living in “extreme heat”: conditions, at present, extremely rare outside the hottest regions of the Sahara Desert. One of the lead authors of the study, Professor Marten Scheffer of Wageningen University, has described such conditions as “unliveable”.
Another study, published last year in the journal Nature Communications, suggests that, by 2070, the Amazon rainforest ecosystem – home to more than 3 million species – may well have collapsed and become instead “a savannah-type ecosystem with a mixture of trees and grass”. “There will,” Professor Scheffer has said, “be more change in the next 50 years than in the past 6,000 years.”
By 2080, Alice will be 68 and Edwyn 71. Under what the government’s Committee on Climate Change (CCC) calls the “business-as-usual trajectory”, there is every chance that we will have reached “the extreme danger threshold of 4°C”. To quote Professor Steven Sherwood of the University of New South Wales: “4°C would likely be catastrophic rather than simply dangerous. For example, it would make life difficult, if not impossible, in much of the tropics, and would guarantee the eventual melting of the Greenland ice sheet and some of the Antarctic ice sheet”, which could see a sea level rise of several metres.
In 2100, maybe, my children will be 88 and 91 years old. Multiple models, including those of the UN World Meteorological Organization, the Canadian Centre for Climate Modelling and Analysis, and the American National Center for Atmospheric Research, suggest a possible, unimaginable 5°C.
And, of course, neither time nor heating will stop there. This, on our current course, is the future that we are leaving to Alice and Edwyn – and to your children, and to yours, and to yours.
1900s to now: climate crime
I was, I think, brought up well by my parents. Thanks to them I am, I think, a good, a moral person. You will note, I hope, that I have never before been charged with any crime.
The climate crisis, the scientific basis of which is endorsed by 98% of all publishing scientists – a consensus greater even than that around evolution – is not a natural disaster. The IPCC has existed for 32 years. Lyndon Johnson, as US President, was briefed on the science of global heating as far back as 1965, and the heating effects of atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane were well established long before that. We – collectively – have known the consequences of our actions for decades, and have continued regardless.
This means that, through our behaviour, we are consciously inflicting the impacts I have described, or else assuring the strong likelihood of those impacts, on ourselves, our children, and billions of other people: including thirst, hunger, displacement, injury, and death. Following the definition in my Oxford English Dictionary, this is, to me, quite clearly a crime – “an evil or injurious act; an offence, a sin; esp. of a grave character” – and a crime on a scale unprecedented in human history.
If I am a moral person, I cannot simply observe this crime. I cannot simply be complicit.
What, then, am I to do? Like thousands upon thousands of others, I have signed petitions and attended protests, and organised a protest myself. As a writer and campaigner, I have written and spoken publicly about climate and ecology. I have written and spoken to local councillors, and to my Member of the Senedd, and to MPs. And for all of those who have done the same and more, despite 50 years of such fine organisations as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, fundamentally nothing has changed.
Our government has not listened. It has failed even on its own terms. In 2019, by the assessment of the CCC, it missed 24 out of 25 of its climate targets. As Lord Deben, the chair of the CCC, said at the time: “The whole thing is run by the government like a Dad’s Army. We can’t possibly go on with this ramshackle system; it doesn’t begin to face the issues. It is a real threat to the population.” And since then there has been no improvement. Of the 31 milestones for actions recommended to the government by the CCC for 2020, for example, only two were fully achieved.
In March this year, the Public Accounts Committee concluded that the government has, quote, “no plan” for addressing climate change. Given which, it might be reasonable to wonder how it was that, in May 2019, the UK parliament came to declare “an environment and climate emergency” – the first such declaration by any parliament in the world. And that, in June 2019, the UK government signed into law a target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, which, at the time, was the most ambitious target of any major economy.
Where petitions, protests, talks, and meetings with politicians have failed, the tactics of civil disobedience used by Extinction Rebellion have been, to some measure at least, successful. As well as resulting in unprecedented levels of public concern about climate change, the actions of April 2019, in which I am proud to have participated, if too briefly, led directly and demonstrably to Parliament’s declaration of a climate emergency, with the 2050 target ‘following’ from that decision. Manifestly, this is cause and effect.
2021: acting in self-defence
In my defence, I have three points to make.
First, I acted in self-defence and in defence of my two young children, whose lives and homes, according to the best available science, will be severely impacted by the failure of our governments to take meaningful action on the climate and ecological crisis. I have rights under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), enshrined into UK law by the 1998 Human Rights Act, the rights to life and to respect for private and family life and home.
Second, the moral nature of my actions. I would like to assert my right to freedom of conscience under Article 9 of the ECHR, and to direct the court to the Crown Prosecution guidance on prosecuting protest offences. Prosecutors must apply the principles of the ECHR, in accordance with the Human Rights Act 1998, at each stage of a case. It is a defence to prove the conduct was reasonable and in accordance with the freedom of expression and other freedoms.
Third, I acted out of necessity, so as to help to avert a more serious harm, or at least to help mitigate its most catastrophic effects. Such cases are concerned with action taken as a matter of necessity to assist another person without their consent. A man who seizes another and forcibly drags him from the path of an oncoming vehicle, thereby saving him from injury or even death, commits no wrong.
I believe I have demonstrated beyond any doubt the “irreparable evil” that will result – inevitably – from our governments’ failure to confront the climate crisis, as well as that minor acts of civil disobedience such as mine have contributed to limiting this evil. By sitting in a public thoroughfare, I have certainly done no more “than is reasonably necessary” – if anything, like all of us here and throughout the world, I would argue that I have done too little – and manifestly it was not “disproportionate to the evil avoided”. Therefore my action was justified both morally and in law.
I do not want to become a criminal. I do not deserve to become a criminal. I can state, without the ghost of a doubt, that to do as I and thousands of other members of Extinction Rebellion have done was not merely justified, it was an absolute moral obligation.
I would, in conclusion, like to mention the custody officer who, on the night of 1 September, locked me in a cell in Charing Cross Police Station, where I remained until midday on 3 September. He was a little younger than me perhaps, softly-spoken, a wearer of glasses – though, as my own glasses had been taken at the desk, I missed the details of his appearance.
This officer, having brought me blankets, food, and water, returned to the corridor and went to close the door, but then stopped and said to me: “On behalf of myself and my children, I want to thank you for what you have done.”
I ask the court, please, before it comes to its decision, to reflect on that officer’s words. Thank you again for your time.