- Robin McKie, science editor
- The Observer, Sunday 1 February 2009
Heathrow protestors' hopes of attracting the support of leading climate scientists in their bid to block the airport's proposed third runway have suffered a major setback. Jim Hansen, director of Nasa's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, has told anti-aviation campaigners that their protests will not help the battle against global warming and do not deserve support.
The news is a serious blow for those opposed to airport expansion. Hansen is one of the world's mostly highly regarded climate scientists and has played a key role in other environmental protests. Last year, he helped defend six campaigners charged with criminal damage after occupying the Kingsnorth coal-fired power station in Kent. He told the court that their protest was justifiable because the 20,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emitted daily by the plant could lead to the extinction of 400 species. The accused were acquitted.
Now eco-campaigners are planning to follow that protest with one aimed at preventing Heathrow's third runway being built. However, Hansen has told them that there is no comparison with the dangers posed by coal power. "I don't think it is helpful to be trying to prevent air flight," Hansen told the Observer. He said he would make no move to help protesters arrested during occupations or disruptions at Heathrow.
Hansen is a world-renowned expert on global temperature fluctuations, and the victim of several unsuccessful attempts by George Bush's administration to silence his warnings about climate change. The climatologist believes the world has only a few years to halt the rise of carbon emissions and has warned America's new president, Barack Obama, that he must act decisively on climate change during his first term or put the planet at risk. Major cuts in carbon emissions must be made worldwide.
However, Hansen said cutbacks in new runways would be ineffective. "The number of runways you need for your airports depends on their traffic. You don't want to be so restrictive that you end up burning more fuel because planes are having to circle and wait to land because of lack of runway space."
Heathrow's expansion is expected to lead to increased noise and pollution, the demolition of 700 homes and major road congestion in the region, and one of the largest coalitions assembled against a building project has been set up to block it. This includes 20 local authorities, six unions and nearly all mainstream environment groups. Activists have said they are prepared to be arrested.
John Sauven, director of Greenpeace UK, said the site would become "the battlefield of our generation".
But Hansen insisted that such efforts were misplaced. "Coal is 80% of the planet's problem," he said. "You have to keep your eye on the ball and not waste your efforts. The number one enemy is coal and we should never forget that." Aviation was not a danger, and he would not fly to the help of those who disrupted airports and flights, he stressed.