Adapted from an image by Ellen Forsyth
Last October, five environmental activists cut chains and closed emergency shutoff valves on five major pipelines carrying Alberta tar sands oil to the United States. The “valve-turners” were arrested and charged with felonies, potentially facing decades in prison and tens of thousands of dollars in fines.
Closing the valves did not endanger anyone. But it did temporarily stop the flow of dirty oil from Canada and dramatize the struggle against climate change. It was also a call for nonviolent, direct action.
The activists—Annette Klapstein, Emily Johnston, Leonard Higgins, Michael Foster and Ken Ward—knew the risks. Yet they openly filmed and livestreamed their actions. (The journalists, filmmakers and supporters on hand were arrested and charged, too.)
In an open letter to President Obama, they called for an emergency national mobilization to shut down the tar sands pipelines, rapidly phase out coal and tar-sands oil extraction, transition to renewable energy sources, and remove atmospheric CO2 through biological sequestration.
“If you take no action,” they wrote, “you will have presided over the collapse of civilization.”
As the Trump administration moves to expedite fossil fuel projects, global average temperatures are escalating rapidly. Extreme drought and heat are slashing food and water supplies, driving millions of climate refugees from their homes in the Middle East and Africa, including countries from which Trump has just banned immigration.
“We are methodically, with full awareness, and in the presence of acceptable alternatives, destroying the conditions which allow the wild riot of diverse life on the planet and have made civilization possible,” Ken Ward wrote.
Ward was the first to face trial. In January, before a jury in Skagit Superior Court in Washington state, he argued that after decades of unsuccessful efforts to stop global warming through polite, legal means, his action was necessary and justified.
After decades of unsuccessful efforts to stop global warming through polite, legal means, his action was necessary and justified.
Ward’s judge, Michael Rickert, disallowed this “necessity defense,” since, he said, “there’s tremendous controversy over … whether [climate change] even exists.”
Ward still managed to get enough of his point across that on February 1 his trial ended in a hung jury. He will be retried May 1. Trials of the other valve turners and their supporters are pending.
These environmental defenders, whom I know through my work as a climate change activist, will all plead “not guilty” at their trials too.
They explain their actions as efforts to rally other people to resist the ongoing assault on the biosphere that sustains us. Emily Johnston put it this way, “My love for the beauties of this world is far greater than my love of an easy life. If others feel the same way, there’s hope for us yet.”
As Ward’s hung jury suggests, others do feel the same way.
My group is organizing demonstrations, including one held February 21 in San Diego, to call for a national mobilization to transition from fossil fuels to wind, water and sun energy, at wartime speed—as if our lives depended on it. A March for Science is planned for April 22, Earth Day, and the People’s Climate March is set for April 29, with sister events in San Diego and other cities coast to coast.
The hour is late, but we’re not alone, and the fight is on.
Ezra Silk is co-founder of The Climate Mobilization, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Brooklyn, New York. He lives in Portland, Maine.