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By Jake Johnson
Environmentalists celebrated a landmark victory in the "fight for a habitable future" after a Portland, Oregon jury on Thursday refused to convict five Extinction Rebellion activists — including valve turner Ken Ward — who presented the climate necessity defense at their trial for blockading a train track used by Zenith Energy to transport crude oil.
'Overt Bastardization of the Truth': Valve Turner Listed as 'Extremist' by U.S. Government Faces Upcoming Trial
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Last week, a Skagit County, Washington jury failed to reach a verdict in my trial on charges of burglary and sabotage for closing the TransMountain pipeline as part of the ShutItDown climate direct action, which disrupted all five pipelines carrying Canadian tar sands oil into the U.S. last October.
The trial itself was very short, barely two days long, because there was no disagreement on the facts of the case, because my proposed necessity defense was not allowed by order of the presiding judge (so our expert witnesses on climate science and energy policy did not take the stand) and because my own testimony was sharply limited in scope.
On the stand, I told the jury my own story, about working for decades on the staff of public interest and environmental organizations where we treated climate change as merely one among many policy issues and about the rude awakening I received after reading two seminal papers, Bill Hare's, 1997 Greenpeace International report The Carbon Logic and Dr. James Hansen's 2005 A Slippery Slope.
In my testimony and with a handful of charts and graphs, I aimed to show:
1. How quickly climate change is occurring and how far out of whack Earth systems are from historical norms ...
2. The potentially catastrophic impact of sea level rise on Skagit County ...
3. The culpable role of tar sands oil in contributing to disaster ...
4. The scale of change necessary to stave off the worse case, and ...
5. The powerful, effective and unique role that nonviolent climate direct action can play in forcing change in a deadlocked society.
I was not allowed to get all of that into the record, but in the end, the jury had these four pieces of tangible evidence to review in their deliberations.
Video of the Action. The prosecution chose to show the jury a short video of highlights of the action that we had prepared, drawing from my own live-streaming and video shot by independent documentarians, Lindsey Grayzell and Carl Davis.
Screen shot of video shown to Skagit County jury by the prosecution, prepared by the defense.
Historical CO2 level chart. There are, of course, a staggering number of data sets and charts to choose from in illustrating the climate problem. After much consideration, we choose to go with NASA's CO2 level chart combining 400,000+ years of ice core data and modern air samples, because it is unimpeachable and intuitive evidence of serious change in global conditions.
Historical Atmospheric CO2 Level chart, taken from NASA website shown to Skagit County jury.
Sea level rise in Skagit County map. I testified about the Eric Rignot, et. al. report concluding that the West Antarctic Ice Shelve is in "unstoppable" collapse and Khazendar, Rignot, et. al. on disintegration of buttressing ice shelves, but we wanted a way to make the threat understandable, so I prepared a chart using Climate Central's Surging Sea mapping tool, showing the impact of 5' possible sea level rise on Skagit County.
The 5' estimate came from former State Department Climate Envoy Jonathan Pershing's report to the Marrakesh Climate Change Conference, as reported by Daphne Wysham. Though much more conservative that former senior adviser to
the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Margaret Davidson's report to the RIMS conference last year, of 9' sea level rise, we thought that the international setting and Pershing's higher rank would carry more weight with the jury.
Projected 5' sea level rise impact on Skagit County map show to the Skagit County jury.
Tar sands oil emissions graph. In arguing why this particular action was appropriate, we presented a Carnegie Institute Oil-Climate Index chart showing that Canadian tar sands oils have 40 percent higher lifecycle carbon emissions than the lowest North American oils. Unfortunately, I was not able to present conclusions of the Oil Change International report, The Sky's the Limit, showing that to have even a 50/50 chance of reaching the 1.5C limit on temperature increase, the world needs to halt all new fossil fuel exploration and reduce some current extractions.
Carnegie Institute Oil-Climate Index chart shown to the Skagit County Jury.
For some time, I have argued that emphasizing the complexity of climate science does us no service in a public debate where our opponents ridicule and warp scientific approaches and where even climate activists are befuddled by the complexity of the problem. In my defense, truncated as it was, I was able to present the barest minimum of information outlining and supporting the simplest and direst aspect of the climate emergency: catastrophic sea level rise and why my action can be considered appropriate in the circumstances.
For some number of the Skagit County jury, this limited data set on climate change impacts proved more persuasive that the graphic depiction of my actions. At the next trial, if the prosecution chooses to retry, we may expect that at least these exhibits will be introduced again.
[Editor's note: Skagit County jury did not convict Ken Ward of two felony counts stemming from an act of civil disobedience in October 2016. After more than five hours of deliberation, Ward's three-day trial ended in a hung jury, with at least one juror refusing to convict. The judge officially declared a mistrial. There will be a conference next week to see if they plan to schedule a new trial. "In five hours, the jury was unable to decide that with all of the evidence against me, including the video of me closing the valve, that this was a crime," said Ken Ward after the decision. "I didn't contest a single piece of the evidence, only presented my story and evidence of catastrophic climate change. This is a tremendous outcome."]
By Andy Rowell
The trial began on Monday for Ken Ward, a climate activist and co-founder of the Climate Disobedience Center, who risks spending 30 years in prison for shutting down a pipeline carrying tar sands crude last October.
At the time, 59 year old Ward, who shut down the Kinder Morgan Trans-Mountain Pipeline in Anacortes, Washington, said his actions were "to avert climate catastrophe and stand with the Standing Rock water protectors. We must stop the fossil fuel industry in its tracks."
It has led to a dozen criminal cases against activists and journalists, of which Ward's is the first to go to full trial.
As yesterday unfolded the prosecution dropped one of the three charges—trespassing—against Ken leaving only charges of burglary and sabotage for him to face.
However his defense team has already suffered a serious setback. As the trial commenced in Skagit County outside of Seattle, it has become apparent that the judge, Michael E. Rickert, has questioned whether humans are causing climate change.
Last week Rickert said: "I don't know what everybody's beliefs are on [climate change], but I know that there's tremendous controversy over the fact whether it even exists. And even if people believe that it does or it doesn't, the extent of what we're doing to ourselves and our climate and our planet, there's great controversy over that."
The county judge made the comments last week when Ward's legal team were requesting to present a "necessity defense" in court. They wanted to argue that non-violent direct action was justified to stop climate change, after a legal precedent was set last year by a judge in Washington state in the trial of the Delta Five anti-oil train activists.
Ward told the Guardian about Judge Rickert's refusal to allow such a defense to proceed to full trial: "I thought it was shocking and deeply worrisome for my case. We are in the late stages of global collapse and to have someone who is presumably as knowledgeable and aware as a judge should be blithely dismissing the biggest problem facing the world is chilling."
But that will not stop Ward making the case about climate change from the witness stand, no matter what the Judge has ruled. "I am going to talk a little bit about climate science," Ward told Reuters. "I spent 30-some-odd years following only legal approaches. It's only been in recent years that the scale of the problem and lack of a political solution leaves no choice but direct action."
Although Ward's trial is expected to be concluded this week, others will soon follow into court. Another one of the #ShutItDown "valve turners" is Annette Klapstein, a retired attorney, who argues that "our upcoming trials will be landmark test cases for direct action and the climate justice movement at a time when they're more important and more vulnerable than ever. The trials will deliberate the legality of direct climate action, even as the government crackdown against it intensifies."
Klapstein is prepared to go to jail to defend the climate. "When I weigh the possibility of my having to do significant prison time against the possibility that my actions may keep all of our children and grandchildren from living through the collapse of civilization due to catastrophic climate change, it's no contest," she said. "My conscience demands I put my body on the line to try to salvage a habitable planet for future generations."
Another person who could face jail is Emily Johnston from Seattle who shut down a pipeline in Minnesota and who is charged with two felonies and two misdemeanors, facing a potential prison sentence of 22 years.
Writing at the end of last week, she outlined how the introduction of the Trump Administration will make protesting even more dangerous and difficult: "The only resonance I can imagine now would be the new administration's glee at how quickly they could brand us 'terrorists,' as they set about the business of dismantling environmental protections just when we need to redouble efforts to take care of our only home."
And as we all strive to take care of our planet, we all have reason to be worried by Trump and his climate change-denying cronies.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Oil Change International.