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The Role of Direct Action in the Battle to Slow Climate Change

Two activists featured in Josh Fox’s new documentary, How to Let Go of the World (And Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change), join us to discuss the role of direct action in fighting global warming.

Aria Doe is co-founder and executive director of the Action Center for Education and Community Development in Far Rockaway, Queens, in New York City and Tim DeChristopher founded the Climate Disobedience Center after spending 21 months in federal custody for posing as a bidder in 2008 to prevent oil and gas drilling on thousands of acres of public land in his home state of Utah. We also speak with Fox about his plans to take the film on the road and distribute it for free as a tool in the climate justice movement.

Watch here:

Here’s the transcript of the interview:

Amy Goodman: We’re broadcasting live from the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, as we return to our conversation about Josh Fox’s new film, How to Let Go of the World (And Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change). Josh Fox is the director of the Academy Award-nominated film Gasland, which exposed the dangers of fracking. He’s joining us here in Park City along with two of his subjects in his film, who are activists around the country. Aria Doe is co-founder and executive director of the Action Center for Education and Community Development in Far Rockaway, Queens, in New York City. And Tim DeChristopher is a climate activist and founder of the Climate Disobedience Center. He spent 21 months in prison for posing as a bidder in 2008 to prevent oil and gas drilling on thousands of acres of public land in his home state of Utah. He was charged under the Bush administration, but he was sentenced and tried under the Obama administration.

So, we welcome you all to Democracy Now! This terrible storm that has just blanketed the East Coast brings us back to other storms of different kinds, like Hurricane Sandy.

Aria Doe: Absolutely.

Amy Goodman: And that’s something, Aria Doe, that you were deeply involved with. And storms don’t affect all people equally.

Aria Doe: Absolutely not. When Hurricane Sandy hit, of course, everyone got wet. But when you live in an area such as the Rockaways, then it affects people different. And it’s a perfect example. On one side, you have multimillionaires; on another side, you have middle class; and in the middle, the populace that we deal with, 65 percent live 200 percent below poverty level. This is all within the 11.5-mile spectra. But the millionaires were able to get up and to go. If they had homes and their homes were destroyed, they had people in Brooklyn or France or wherever that they could go to. On the middle class and, yes, if your home was destroyed, you did have options, you did have choices. But we deal with the voiceless and we deal with the choiceless. And we deal—when you’re dealing with a population 200 percent below poverty levels, if all of their family lives on one floor of project housing, where are you going to go? If you deal with your family and when you need a little bit to get through the rest of the week and you all have lost your jobs, what are you going to do? Prior to Sandy, we did not have lines of people and have to feed 25,000—provide 25,000 plates of food a month. We’re still doing that, a thousand days after Sandy. We still have—

Amy Goodman: Wait. Why are you doing that a thousand days later?

Aria Doe: After Sandy, when you have five people in your family that have lost their jobs, you have no one to go to. When you have to deal with between—you’re choosing between shoes for your kids or milk for your babies or a coat for yourself, you need to come and you need to have those plates replaced, because that’s $20 you don’t have to spend that you can spend on something else. When your child is getting asthma or when they’re eating lead paint because the storm has washed away the coverage that was there, then you have more doctor bills. And a deductible of $20, when you have nothing, might as well be $200 or $2 million. So, when you have choices, you can act, even if you all get wet. When you don’t have choices, a thousand days later, you are still impacted, for generations to come.

Amy Goodman: And how do you organize around the issue of poverty in—what we’re seeing is this dramatically changing climate—in a fossil fuel economy that does not seem to change that much?

Aria Doe: Well, you work on connecting the dots, because there is no one more powerful than a parent who’s fighting for their child and there’s no one stronger than the poor and impoverished who must stand on the line to make sure—and put aside their pride—that folks get fed. So we have to speak the language to the poor of fossil fuel and connect the dots. How does solar energy affect you? Why is it important? If it will help you get further in a week and be able to get more for your kids, then you’re going to come and you’re going to fight. All of a sudden, solar energy is important to you.

We had an example of that on May 18 in the Rockaways, where we had a gathering of 200 people. And Josh was there and leading the call. And, of course, 50 percent of them were the choirs, the people who understand about solar energy, the folks who understand about fracking and why it is bad. And normally and too often, that’s all who’s in the room—the choir preaching to the choir. But we also had 50 percent of folks who were worried about getting to the PTA the next day, worried about getting shoes for their kids, because now they understood that if we’re in this room and if we’re empowered and if someone sees this picture of us being activated, then my child has a better future and I’m on board for that.

Amy Goodman: Tim DeChristopher, talk about your activism in this time when, what, the report just came out—2015 by far the hottest on record, surpassing only 2014, the year before—this storm, a massive, epic storm that the East Coast is still digging out from under. We spoke to you just a few weeks ago. You were in Seattle, not where you’re based, but you were there to support a group of climate activists who went on trial, the Delta 5. Why don’t you tell us what happened with them and why you’re involved with them?

Tim DeChristopher: Yeah, so I was there working with the Climate Disobedience Center to support the Delta 5 as they were going into trial. And we were there just to give whatever kind of support that they needed and that ended up being media support and organizing support and financial support.

Amy Goodman: What were they on trial for?

Tim DeChristopher: They were on trial for blockading an oil train about a year and a half ago. And they were the first ones who were able to present the necessity defense. And so, they had climate activists on the stand. They had oil train safety activists on the stand.

Amy Goodman: Explain what an oil train is, what they were trying to block.

Tim DeChristopher: Well, they were blocking a mile-and-a-half-long oil train carrying Bakken oil out of North Dakota, which is a fairly new phenomenon of all oil tanker cars on one big long train that presents massive new risk to the communities that it rolls through. And so they were there blockading that. And they were able to present really the most comprehensive case for climate action over the course of four days in a courtroom that I’ve ever seen in an American courtroom and perhaps the strongest case I’ve seen anywhere over four-and-a-half days. And then they had an amazing result, with jurors coming out and supporting them afterwards, signing up with the lead defendant to go to her next lobby day at the state Capitol.

Amy Goodman: But what happened? What was the verdict?

Tim DeChristopher: There was a split verdict that acquitted them of the obstruction of a train charge and convicted them of trespass. And things got complicated in the end, where they weren’t able to make the necessity defense argument in their closing statements and the judge actually asked the jurors to ignore all of the expert testimony that they had heard for three days. So, it was an interesting and complicated case that taught us, with the Climate Disobedience Center, a lot about how to do that case better the next time. And so, I’m going to continue supporting folks that are taking their case to trial and are engaging in civil disobedience.

Amy Goodman: And what does the verdict mean for oil trains? Some call them bomb trains, is that right? And why?

Tim DeChristopher: Because they’re extremely explosive, as we saw with the Lac-Mégantic disaster and a lot of other oil train disasters around North America. And, you know, I mean, I think all it means for the oil train shipping is that people are going to continue to stand up against it, you know and so we’re going to continue working with the folks who are standing up against it. So, I’m working with them. I’m also working with the Keep It in the Ground campaign that is calling for an end of fossil fuel leasing on public lands. So I’m kind of involved in a lot of different things and trying to remain as independent as possible in the climate movement, because—because it’s such a rapidly shifting crisis.

Amy Goodman: We had a conversation about what’s going on in Oregon right now. And there are developments—the standoff that’s taking place or the occupation of federal lands by the right-wing militia with guns. Talk about that in comparison to what you faced, for example. You went to—explain what you did, why you ended up in prison for almost two years in Utah.

Tim DeChristopher: Well—

Amy Goodman: Well, not in Utah, but your action was in Utah.

Tim DeChristopher: Yeah, so, with the occupation in Oregon, you know, I think there’s a lot of the country that’s kind of just trying to laugh at it and hope that if they just laugh at them, they’ll go away. But there are folks who are also seeing this as a real threat that is part of a consistent challenge to the idea of public lands and the idea of public goods in our country. So, there are folks from the Center for Biological Diversity who are up there right now, making their presence known as people who do care about our public lands and who are standing up to this threat of violence in order to get their way.

Amy Goodman: So they’re standing up against the militia that is there?

Tim DeChristopher: Yeah, yeah. I think they’re about the only people who aren’t armed in the whole county right now. So they’re standing up nonviolently against this violent force that’s out there.

Amy Goodman: How do you frame this is an anti-federal lands encounter that’s going on? And explain what you are seeing, the trend.

Tim DeChristopher: Well, I think it’s something that has grown out of the wise use movement that was funded by the fossil fuel industry and the mining industry for the last couple of decades, that has challenged the very idea of public lands and public resources. And so, I think there are people trying to support that idea of public lands in a lot of different ways. And it’s also what’s kind of supporting the public trust doctrine cases that young people are taking to the courts. So there’s all these different efforts throughout the climate movement trying to approach things in new and creative ways, which I think is necessary—

Amy Goodman: And what you did in Utah?

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Tim DeChristopher: —when you have this, this extremely rapid, rapidly developing crisis that—where we’re up against an opponent, the fossil fuel industry, that is also adapting to what we’re doing. So, you know, I think trying all these new things in a lot of different new ways is critical. And part of the reason that I’m an independent activist is that what we’re seeing is that our institutions have this inertia, whether that’s big climate organizations or, you know, the academic organizations that I’ve spent a couple years with at Harvard Divinity School. They’re not keeping up with the pace of the crisis. They’re not adapting. They get bogged down in this inertia. And so, part of the reason that I’m involved in this film is that it was able to tell the truth in a different way than either of the climate organizations that I’ve been involved with, who are scared to talk about what it means to be too late to stop climate change or even the academic institutions that I’ve been a part of, that also are—I think, aren’t keeping up with the pace of the crisis.

Amy Goodman: My last question for you has to do with—you served almost two years in prison for trying to participate in an auction auctioning off public land to be drilled. You ended up preventing that auction from going forward, but you went to prison for almost two years.

Tim DeChristopher: Yeah.

Amy Goodman: Now you’re trying to stop drilling on public land all over the country.

Tim DeChristopher: Yeah and there’s a lot of people working with me on that. And there’s actually a lot of big organizations in the climate movement that have now gotten to that point of challenging—

Amy Goodman: What’s the campaign called?

Tim DeChristopher: —that whole system. It’s called the Keep It in the Ground campaign, with Rainforest Action Network, Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians. A lot of big organizations now are challenging that whole system. And they’re trying to move past this sort of one at a time, stop this destructive project, try to fight off that destructive project and say this whole system is broken. It’s all ignoring this overwhelming threat of climate change and we need to stop the whole system.

Amy Goodman: Aria, when you’re talking with people in the Rockaways and you’re providing service to people who have been made homeless, who are still dealing with the effects not only of Sandy years ago, but now with the newest storm—

Aria Doe: Absolutely.

Amy Goodman: —how do you address the issue, an issue that’s close to your heart, of climate change, when someone’s just trying to feed their kid?

Aria Doe: You educate—educate and activate. And our motto is "act now, cry later." So we have to get you to act, to understand what that plate of food means. And if you don’t start acting with the things that can contaminate that plate of food, yes, you can eat, but what are you doing to your body? So we activate, educate and we act now. And then we cry later. And it’s working.

Amy Goodman: And, Josh, the actions you’ve been documenting not only around this country, but around the world—I want to go for a minute to a clip from How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change. This is from China, Josh Fox speaking to environmentalist Ella Chou.

Ella Chou: I believe there is something called the moral imagination.

Josh Fox: The moral imagination.

Ella Chou: The moral imagination. So, I think the moral imagination forces us to get out of our box of thinking about, for instance, what is being successful. Society might tell you that you should work for McKinsey or Goldman Sachs or whatever. You know, as a college graduate, you should go find a job. That’s your top priority. You should buy a house. The moral imagination allows us to think outside of this box, having a moral value about what you want as a person, as an individual, what you want out of your own humanity. What do you want to do for the world, for yourself?

Josh Fox: If there was any idea that could rocket you off into the stratosphere, this was it. The moral imagination wrote the Bill of Rights, came up with the idea of democracy. It dreamed up all the core values that were emerging in all these climate warriors around the globe. And all across the Earth, a movement was being imagined.

Amy Goodman: That’s Ella Chou in Josh Fox’s new documentary that’s premiered at Sundance, How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change. Talk about why Ella is included in this film.

Josh Fox: Ella is a remarkable individual. She works at the National Renewable Energy Labs, which is the only part of the Department of Energy that doesn’t have to do with our nuclear stockpile. That National Renewable Energy Lab—

Amy Goodman: And where is that?

Josh Fox: In Golden, Colorado. But she’s our envoy to China, to advise China on community solar. So that means challenging the fossil fuel industry in a whole other way, right? How do you replace coal-fired power plants, gas-fired power plants, all these pipelines, the bomb trains? Well, you do this with renewable energy. And what the science tells us is that we can get 100 percent of our energy from renewable sources right now. We don’t need to shift to anything else. So Ella talks about renewables. But she also, remarkably, on the Great Wall of China, talks about this call to a moral imagination. And what I think Tim and Aria are doing is imagining the next steps of our society, that all across America, that movement is being imagined, all across the world. So—

Amy Goodman: Aria, do you use solar panels in Far Rockaway?

Aria Doe: In housing projects, solar panels are not used.

Josh Fox: They’re not—it’s hard. We’ve been working on that.

Aria Doe: We want to. We want to.

Josh Fox: But in the Rockaways, during Sandy, some of the only people who had power were powered by solar-paneled trucks that came in from Greenpeace, you know. So what we’re talking about here is—

Amy Goodman: And we have a minute, so if you want to talk about what this new journey you’re going to go on around the country is?

Josh Fox: Oh, absolutely. All the people who are blocking bomb trains, who are blocking pipelines, who are protesting the fracked gas power plant in their backyard, of which there are 300 currently proposed for the U.S.—if we do that, we will never make a Paris climate target. So we’re taking this film, the Let Go and Love Tour, How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change, the Let Go and Love Tour, to support all those grassroots actions. So we’re calling for people and we’re making that map right now, where we’re going to go, a hundred cities around the U.S. We’re going to offer the film free of charge to those communities as a rallying point. So, please, we’re asking people to support the tour on Kickstarter. But this is something we did with Gasland. This is about galvanizing a movement on the ground. And that’s worked. We’ve seen this activism ban fracking in New York state and start a lot of other things.

Amy Goodman: You’re an Oscar-nominated filmmaker for Gasland a few years ago. Do you believe in a boycott against the Oscars because of its lack of diversity?

Josh Fox: Well, I think we have a huge problem with the—I mean, there are amazing films that have been made over the last two years by black filmmakers. So, you know, I support them, of course. And I support that all of these things within our system as filmmakers have to become much more conscious and much, much more awake.

Amy Goodman: I want to thank you all for being with us, Aria Doe, co-founder of the Action Center for Education and Community Development in Queens; Tim DeChristopher, Climate Disobedience Center, he’s based in Rhode Island; and Josh Fox, director of How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change.

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