Tom Bullough is the author of four novels – most recently Addlands, a story of seventy years on a Radnorshire hill farm, which, among other plaudits, was the subject of a sermon in Westminster Abbey. At present, he is working on his fifth book, Sarn Helen - a study of Welsh history and the climate crisis - which will be published by Granta in 2022. He lives in the Brecon Beacons.
Tom Bullough was arrested during the September rebellion for failing to comply with a section 14 of the Public Order Act 1986. This is the statement he read in his defence at the City of London magistrates’ court. He received a nine month suspended sentence and was ordered to pay costs.
I would like first to thank the court for its time and for this opportunity to speak.
My name, under regular circumstances, is Tom. I am forty-five 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.
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. Edwyn likes to fight me, and Edwyn likes to hug me. He worries. He likes things orderly. 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. Until the pandemic closed it down, the children’s mother, my partner Charlie, ran a cafe in Brecon, our local town. Outside the cafe there is a sill, where Alice would install herself and, with a Tupperware pot at her side, perform her songs for passers-by. She could sometimes earn more than £10 in an hour. Alice is small and dark in complexion, with hair that reaches past her waist. 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.
In the mornings, normally, we will cycle down to school. On the long, narrow lane called Warren Road, Alice will lead, I will ride in the middle and Edwyn will come at the rear. When we reach the busy roundabout at the bottom of the hill, I will go first, with Alice in the middle and Edwyn at the rear, and lead them into Llanfaes, to their school. We resemble, I often think, a duck with ducklings. I do this because these are the best configurations to make sure that they are safe. In the evenings, after their supper, I will invariably read to them. I have read them everything from The Lord of the Rings to The Brothers Grimm, His Dark Materials to Cakes in Space. I do this because we all enjoy it, and because it settles them down in peace and in security. I do these sorts of things all the time, because I am an ordinary parent, because I love them beyond words and it is my duty – my absolute responsibility – to look after them…
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 1.2 billion people from their homes. 1.2 billion people: 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. They will be approaching the current age of my parents. By 2080, under what the government’s Committee on Climate Change (the 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.
For 2100, when, maybe, my children will be 88 and 91 years old – younger, still, than my grandfather is today – multiple models, including those of the U.N. 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.
To quote Professor Stefan Rahmstorf, from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research:
“Like in the Covid pandemic, timing is critical to prevent devastation. If you wait until you already have a serious problem, then it is too late.”
To quote Sir David Attenborough, speaking two years ago this month:
“It may sound frightening, but the scientific evidence is that if we have not taken dramatic action within the next decade, we could face irreversible damage to the natural world and the collapse of our societies.”
To quote Lord Nicholas Stern, IG Patel Professor of Economics and Government and Chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics:
“Climate change is the result of the greatest market failure the world has seen. We risk damages on a scale larger than the two world wars of the last century. What we are talking about is extended world war.”
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.
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 – this is not a natural disaster. This is not an earthquake or a meteor strike. The IPCC has existed for thirty-two 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 we 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, on our children, and on billions of other people: impacts 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? Well. Like thousands upon thousands of others, I have signed petitions and attended protests and, if only once, organised a protest myself. As a writer and as a campaigner, I have written and spoken publicly about climate and ecology on more occasions than I can hope to remember. I have travelled village halls giving talks. I have written and spoken to local councillors, and written and spoken to my Member of the Senedd, and written and spoken to one MP and to another MP… And for all of those who have done the same and very, very much more, despite fifty 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 2 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.
Well. As regards the climate emergency, here I quote Jeremy Corbyn, the then-leader of the opposition, as he moved that motion on May 1st 2019: “We are witnessing an unprecedented upsurge of climate activism with groups like Extinction Rebellion forcing the politicians in this building to listen… Today we have the opportunity to say: ‘We hear you.’”
“’We hear you.’”
As regards Theresa May signing into law a target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, here I quote the House of Commons Library, Acting on climate change: The plan for net zero emissions in the UK: “In 2019, following Parliament’s declaration of a ‘climate emergency’ and recommendations from the independent Committee on Climate Change (CCC), the Government legislated for net zero greenhouse gas emissions”.
I hardly feel I need to labour this point. Where petitions, and protests, and 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.
The reason why I am here today is that, on September 1st last year, I sat on the road in Parliament Square for approximately one hour, holding a piece of paper reading “Support the CEE Bill” – that is, the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill tabled in the House of Commons by the Green MP Caroline Lucas – and did not cooperate when asked to move by a police officer, PC Andrew Dixon, whom I would, incidentally, like to thank for carrying out his duties with civility and professionalism.
In this act, I would like to emphasise, I damaged or injured nothing and nobody. To those I inconvenienced, I apologise sincerely…
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 September 1st, locked me in a cell in Charing Cross Police Station, where I remained until midday on September 3rd. 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.
Tom Bullough is the author of four novels – most recently Addlands, a story of seventy years on a Radnorshire hill farm, which, among other plaudits, was the subject of a sermon in Westminster Abbey. At present, he is working on his fifth book, Sarn Helen – a study of Welsh history and the climate crisis – which will be published by Granta in 2022. He lives in the Brecon Beacons.
The full, unedited text of Tom Bullough’s Defence Speech is here.