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We Are Willing to Spend Time in Jail Fighting for Environmental Justice

Armed with bolt cutters, we went to four states and closed all five major tar sands pipelines into the United States from Canada.

Two weeks ago, a jury in Skagit County, Washington, refused to convict my friend Ken Ward of two felonies: burglary and sabotage.

What had Ken done? Like me, and like our other three friends, he had used bolt cutters to break two chains, and then used the emergency shutoff valve to close a tar sands pipeline. Between us, in four states, we closed all five major tar sands pipelines into the United States from Canada. Before doing this, we made calls to the pipeline companies, to ensure that they could follow their internal procedures to make this shutdown as safe as possible.

The jury refused to convict Ken even though he didn’t deny the charges. In fact, he offered video evidence of his actions.

Here’s a one-minute viral version:

Why did we do this? Because our political system is utterly failing to forestall the looming climate catastrophe, and because tar sands oil is the dirtiest of all oils—as dirty as coal.

Citing a scientifically imaginary “tremendous controversy” about climate change, the judge hadn’t allowed Ken to present the necessity defense—a traditional common law defense that, for example, makes allowance for the moral necessity of breaking into a burning building to save a child. If the judge had allowed this, scientists would have explained that in fact, billions of children are in our burning planetary home, and the only way that we can save them is to stop burning fossil fuels. And the only way to do that without tremendous upheaval is to start right now with a rapid and resolute decrease in the use of the dirtiest fuels—tar sands oil and coal.

Some people say that climate activists like us want an “overnight” end to the use of fossil fuels, but this is exactly wrong—only if we start now do we avoid the need for such an abrupt end. If we wait even two or three more years, the situation will be so dire that only an essentially “overnight” end will save us. If we sacrifice a little now, we gain the world later.

Because of the judge’s decision, scientists couldn’t attest to these truths at Ken Ward’s trial. So why was the jury unable to convict him? Likely because he was allowed to speak to his “state of mind”, and therefore both talk about climate change from his own perspective, and also show the jury two charts, one showing how much dirtier tar sands oil is than other oils, and another showing that even in NOAA’s current middle-of-the-road projection, much of Skagit County will be under water by mid-century. (If map does not show visit Risk Zone Maps or original article.)

Above is the graphic that Ken Ward used at his trial. It shows the 2050 forecast, which aired at a recent conference of scientists who ran current data from polar ice caps. (graphic: Climate Central)

Happily, at least one person on that jury, perhaps more, saw the truth: an invented political controversy has no bearing whatsoever on scientific facts, and that what Ken did was a necessary Hail Mary pass to get the political system to respond appropriately.

The prosecutor filed charges again a week later, so Ken will head back to trial soon—he may well spend time in prison, as might we all. We understood this risk, and we’re making the best use of our time remaining—speaking to activists and church groups and others about why we were willing to take this risk, and what they themselves can do.

The truth is, we all think that being alive at this moment is an extraordinary privilege. How many of us have wondered how we’d have acted, say, in 1930’s Germany? How many of us have wished for a fight that was truly meaningful?

Well, we have one now. This is our chance to rise to the occasion of the most important fight in history. Not just those of us who turned the valves, but all of you, too. It’s not hyperbole to say that the whole world is at stake—we’re headed fast for a level of warming that will wipe out not just humans but most other species as well. There are a million ways to do the right thing now—sheltering the vulnerable, speaking the truth, and most of all, demanding that our leaders act in accordance with scientific realities.

This will not be an easy fight. There will be many tragedies. But for a very short period of time, it’s still within our power to avert devastation. We can demand a decent future, one in which we move with the utmost speed and care to clean energy, and with the utmost compassion to manage the displacement that climate change is already causing.

My friends and I are willing to spend time in jail to be part of that fight. We think it’s our responsibility—especially because we’re older white people, and thus much less likely to face police violence, and less likely to have our families or professional lives derailed by a conviction. And in every community we’ve spoken to—perhaps most especially the churches—people tell us they’re willing, too.

We only have this one chance. We only have a few years. This is the time to ask, what are the ways that you can fight—for your loved ones, and for all the vulnerable people and creatures of this beautiful world? Will you look away, or will you do all you can to save this world?

Emily Johnston is a poet and activist.


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