In the early hours of 11 October 2016, I closed a safety valve on an oil pipeline in Skagit county, Washington.
I was acting as part of the “Valve Turners” direct action against climate change. Five of us, in locations across four states, succeeded in shutting down all five pipelines carrying Canadian tar sands oil into the US for a day. We were careful, transparent, civil and nonviolent. We put a premium on minimizing damage to pipeline property, and carefully considered ways to minimize any violations of the law. We called the pipeline companies beforehand, and waited around afterwards for the police to arrest us (nearly an hour in two cases).
Our motley crew of mostly retirees included a former IT manager, a retired tribal government attorney, a psychologist, a poet and, in my case, a climate activist and part-time handyman. None of us had ever been charged with a major crime. We were moved to action because the world is marching toward climate cataclysm, with almost nothing being done to change that. We acted out of distress for our children and grandchildren. We acted on behalf of the poorest peoples of the world, who have contributed almost nothing to the climate problem yet will suffer the most from its effects. We acted for all the wild things and wild places which have no voice.
So it was stunning, and chilling, to learn that our protest was listed as an act of “domestic terrorism” by the US Department of Homeland Security, as the Guardian recently reported.
In an intelligence report, the DHS catalogued 34 deaths and numerous cases of violence in recent years. Those included acts of terror by Dylann Roof, who “used a Glock 41 pistol to conduct a shooting at a bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC”, killing nine; Robert Dear, who “used an AK-47 to conduct a shooting at the Colorado Springs, CO Planned Parenthood”, killing three; and Micah Johnson, who killed five police officers in a shooting spree in Dallas.
Tucked between those murderous rampages, the DHS reports that “suspected environmental rights extremists coordinated the shutdown of five pipelines in Minnesota (2), Washington, North Dakota and Montana”.
That’s me and my friends, trying to do something before it’s too late.
For my part in that action, I will be tried for a third time next month. My first trial, in January 2015, ended in a hung jury. At a second trial, in June, 2015, the jury hung one count of sabotage and voted to convict on the charge of burglary. Last April, an appeals court overturned that conviction because I was not permitted to argue that my action in shutting down the pipeline was justified by the greater need of addressing the climate crisis.
Next month, a jury will consider that question. They will weigh the testimony of climate experts, and listen to my own explanation of why this kind of action, at this time, is necessary.
There is no doubt of the straits we’re in. Each day brings more devastating ecological news, and millions of people are displaced by the extreme weather events triggered by our changing climate.
Yet the US government ignores the increasingly frantic voices of the world’s climate scientists and drags us further down the path of no return. That is the real environmental extremism, and that is the extremism we ought to be fighting.
Our government is directly complicit in this crisis. By subsidizing fossil fuels and leasing public lands to the carbon industry, the US is in large part responsible for the current state of our planet.
All the while, our government has been working overtime to quash any prospect of addressing climate change. Last week, responding to repeated motions from our government, a federal court threw out the lawsuit Juliana v United States. The suit was brought by 21 youth plaintiffs, who charged that the US government has “sanctioned, permitted and authorized a fossil fuel system” that violated their rights to a stable climate.
There is next to no possibility that the immediate steps required to stave off widespread catastrophic climate change – including ending the burning of tar sands oil and coal – will be undertaken by the Trump administration, our divided Congress or by the voluntary action of the fossil fuel industry.
It has become clear: we cannot wait for our government to save us when they have created the problem in the first place.