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Ella Gilbert: campaigning, conviction and climate change

On July 13th last year, Ella Gilbert took part in a protest against the building of a third runway at Heathrow. She and 12 others chained themselves together on one of the airport’s runways, causing the cancellation of 25 flights. They were convicted of aggravated trespass on 25th January, and must return to court for sentencing at the end of the month.

She was a student at UEA between 2011 and 2015, graduating with a bachelors degree in environmental geography and a masters in climate science.

Tell us more about the protest group you are part of, Plane Stupid. How did the group come about?
[su_quote]Plain Stupid was founded in 2005. One of the other defendants, Graham, was the first person to ever get arrested on a Plain Stupid demo. One of the first major actions was at Stanstead in 2007, I was around and about at that time, but I wasn’t actually involved in the action although I very much wanted to be. I was 17 so they didn’t want to get minors in trouble. But I did know quite a lot of the people that were there – there was 50-ish.

That was in the first wave of the anti-Heathrow campaign which flared up between 2002 and 2010 when Heathrow [expansion] was originally on the cards. Then in 2010 David Cameron made his famous election pledge not to expand Heathrow – no ifs, no buts. So that prompted a second wave, hence why we’re here![/su_quote]

How was the protest organised in terms of the physical stunt? It caused quite a disruption with the cancellation of 25 flights – was this intentional?
[su_quote]So we got in with a whole bunch of kit: a tripod made of scaffolding and some fencing, that kind of thing. It’s so they need to get specialist equipment to remove you. And then we were obviously locked on [to each other] so we had lots of people with D-locks and arm tubes around the edges, which prolongs your visit! It means they can’t just take you off immediately.

We were there for about six hours which is the longest any airport demo has ever happened for. The intention was to stay there for as long as possible – to prevent as many flights taking off and to save as many emissions as possible. Six hours was pretty good, I think! The longer the better in these situations.[/su_quote]

What do you see as the main problems with Heathrow’s expansion?
[su_quote]It’s quite a nebulous issue. The main thing is that aviation is inherently bound up with climate change; you cannot de-carbonise aviation because it requires an incredible amount of energy to keep a massive tin can full of people in the sky. It’s just impossible. Any techno-fixes are massively out-stripped by the huge increases in demand for passenger travel.

We’ve got a whole bunch of climate targets that are legally binding: by 2050 we have to reduce our emissions as a whole country by 80%. If we are going to meet the target which the government has set itself for aviation, it will represent a quarter of emissions in 2050 – it currently represents 6%, so that’s a massive increase. And that’s even with massive, massive reductions in emissions from aviation. So essentially it’s a really highly emitting sector – and it’s also causing lots of deaths from air pollution and that kind of thing. Within a 32-kilometre radius [of Heathrow] there are 31 deaths a year from air pollution, and things like nitrous oxides and particular matter and that kind of stuff.[/su_quote]

You’ve received support from people such as Natalie Bennett, as well as from many Heathrow residents: how have you found the reaction and publicity?
[su_quote]It’s been insane – actually insane! I’ve had loads of support from really bizarre [people]: Natalie Bennett, the Shadow Chancellor – I’m writing to Jeremy Corbyn today to see if I can wangle him! – loads of human rights lawyers, the head of Greenpeace, head of Friends of the Earth.

We’ve basically just got such a wide base of contacts and networks. We’re such a diverse group – there’s 13 of us – so we’ve all got our own in-roads. Everyone’s supporting us really strongly but from really diverse sectors. It’s been unexpected but incredible.[/su_quote]

Although the plans seem to be going ahead, what do you hope your protest has achieved for perceptions of climate change?
[su_quote]A lot of the motivation was because the Heathrow expansion debate hadn’t really focused on climate change at all: it’s always about noise, or air pollution, or compensation for local residents. These, of course, are very important, valid issues and they are legitimate things to be worrying about. However, the elephant in the room is climate change: no one’s been talking about it. You cannot separate aviation from climate change.

I think in terms of public perception, it’s been successful. We’ll be the first people to ever go to prison for aggravated trespass, and some of the first climate protesters to go to prison, and that in itself is a big news story. The coverage has been incredible, so I think it’s got our message quite wide.[/su_quote]

Rob Gray of Back Heathrow has said that the actions of Plane Stupid don’t represent the majority of Heathrow residents. Do you agree with this?
[su_quote]Back Heathrow is a group that is funded by Heathrow. It’s presented as a lobby group supported by residents. It’s not a very unbiased source – obviously neither am I – but I think it portrays itself [as being] much more official capacity than it actually is. Its funding comes from Heathrow and big business. All the residents that I’ve met have been unbelievably supportive. I mean, 769 homes are under threat of being bulldozed – if that was your house you’d probably be pretty on-side![/su_quote]

It’s been argued a third runway will boost the economy and create jobs. Do you dispute this?
[su_quote]Investing in alternatives such as green economy, renewables, better railway links – any kind of infrastructure development that is renewable or in someway more sustainable – is also going to create jobs. People are dying as a result of air pollution and climate change. You can always fight statistics with statistics, and you can use them selectively, of course, but you’ve got to look at them in a little bit more depth.

[The pro-expansion lobby] has got a lot more power and influence than we do. All we have at our disposal is traditional campaigning methods, which have clearly not worked. No one’s listening to us; the government says [they are], then they totally U-turn on the matter. We have had to take dramatic action in response to a very dramatic threat, and the only thing we have at our disposal is ourselves. Back Heathrow has a lot of money, influence and political lobbying power.[/su_quote]

How do you, and how can we, combat climate change in other ways? Are you just focused on air travel?
[su_quote]We need to do a lot of different things all at once, and the longer we wait the harder it gets. The Climate Change Act 2008 meant we were the first country in the world with legally binding climate targets, but meeting them requires a concerted effort. Building another runway or expanding airports does the opposite of what we need to do to meet those targets. All other sectors – such as transport, heating, heavy industry – are going to have to cut emissions by 85% in the next 20 years, so that aviation, the only industry allowed to do so, can expand. It seems very obvious when you look at those statistics but I don’t think most people know that. That’s part of the battle: getting climate change on the agenda and pushing for commitment from the government. We need to be reinvesting in a green economy and low-carbon alternatives.

Anyone who is aware of the history of what the government has said knows that it’s just saying a lot of political rhetoric and doing the exact opposite. There’s no way we can meet targets if we carry on [along] this trajectory. I know something has to be done and feel I’ve been pushed to extreme measures.[/su_quote]

Would you say the important part is educating people about climate change?
[su_quote]A lot of media representation of climate change is problematic. For example, the BBC has to be impartial, so they need [to interview] one person who denies climate change for every climate scientist.

This does not demonstrate that 99% of climate scientists know this is happening. It’s treated as an argument that could go either way when really it’s unequivocal. It’s important this representation is stopped.[/su_quote]

Do you think people tend to bury their heads in the sand?
[su_quote]If it doesn’t directly affect your life – for example, in the West, where effects are minimal and will be until our grandchildren grow up, that’s when the shit will start hitting the fan – then you don’t tend to think about it. But if you’re living on a Pacific island, by the sea, your home may already be getting washed away. Lots of people see combatting it as: “You need to stop driving, you need to give up this and sacrifice that…” when really it can be much less scary if we just do it properly.[/su_quote]

How has studying climate science at UEA developed your views on matters like this?
[su_quote]I studied for both undergraduate and postgraduate degrees at UEA. I have been interested in climate change since I was about 13. The climate science department here is one of the best in the country.

It takes a very special person to be able to look at the overwhelming amount of data and just say “Oh well.” Obviously I have become desensitised to it as well, like when I hear things about having no Arctic sea ice in September in the next 30 years. It’s terrifying and it means the atmosphere is a degree warmer. But honestly, I just try not to think about it, otherwise I’ll spend my life banging my head against a wall![/su_quote]

Are you worried your conviction will put people off further protests?
[su_quote]We are obviously being made an example of. But I think we’ll be the first of many. In terms of the whole movement, this is probably the best thing that could have happened. It’s been widely publicised and the shock is palpable. We’ll be the first people to get sent down for aggravated trespass.

It might deter people, but equally I think within the climate change movement it probably won’t. The problem is only going to get worse and it requires sacrifice from people.[/su_quote]

Does the prospect of a prison sentence frighten you?
[su_quote]Yes. The prospect of going to prison is something I freaked out about a few months ago when I first thought “Yeah, OK, this is a genuine possibility”. But I feel like I’ve psyched myself up for it now. On a personal level, it’s obviously scary. But in comparison to all the people that are dying every year of climate-related diseases and extreme whether events, it’s literally nothing.[/su_quote]

What happens now? How does Plane Stupid plan to keep up the media attention on this?
[su_quote]Right now we’re focused on solidarity and support for those of us who have been convicted. Once we’re in prison it’ll be pretty difficult to take part in interviews, so [then] the campaign will be “Free the Heathrow 13”. But we won’t be very involved in that…[/su_quote]


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July 2021
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