It’s fashionable to cast the civic conversation around climate change, such as it is, as a polarized debate between “climate deniers” and “climate believers.” That tidy distinction is on display at the Bonn climate talks, where the Trump administration will promote coal, natural gas and nuclear energy as an answer to climate change from the official U.S. office, while a “shadow delegation” of U.S. municipal and state leaders, housed in tents, declare their continuing commitment to the Paris climate agreement.
It’s a neat, black-and-white story, peopled with stock characters, useful to both sides, and fundamentally untrue.
None of the U.S. leaders rallying under the tent in Bonn are saying this however. While California’s Gov. Jerry Brown speaks in Germany of “human civilization on the chopping block,” at home he champions failed cap and trade policy in legislation effectively crafted by fossil fuel interests. Even at this late date, there is no credible leadership proposing any plan of climate action appropriate to the scale and speed of the problem. Instead of stark contrast between climate denial and action, what’s really on display in Bonn is 50 shades of climate denial.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration is driving hard to buttress the U.S. position as rogue fossil fuel kleptocracy and bully pulpit for climate denialism. Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeWant to evaluate Donald Trump's judgment? Listen to Donald Trump The Hill's Morning Report - Biden launches blitz for jobs plan with 'thank you, Georgia' OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Court sets in motion EPA ban on pesticide linked to developmental issues | Trump Interior Secretary Zinke files to run for Congress, again | Senate passes bipartisan B water infrastructure bill MORE’s Interior Department released a five year plan that makes no mention of climate change. EPA Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittEPA bans use of pesticide linked to developmental problems in children Science matters: Thankfully, EPA leadership once again agrees Want to evaluate Donald Trump's judgment? Listen to Donald Trump MORE blithely ignored the recently released National Climate Assessment, continuing the EPA rollback of the Obama-era Clean Power Plan. Kathleen Hartnett White, the Trump administration’s nominee to the White House Council on Environmental Quality, author of “Fossil Fuels: The Moral Case,” struggled to answer basic questions about climate science at her Senate confirmation hearing.
And the crackdown on citizens who stand up to something about climate change continues apace: Earlier this month, the U.S. Justice Department responded to a letter spearheaded by Rep. Ken BuckKenneth (Ken) Robert BuckHillicon Valley —Apple is not a monopoly, judge rules Judge rules Apple is not 'illegal monopolist' in high-profile Epic case Lawmakers flooded with calls for help on Afghanistan exit MORE (R-Colo.) and signed by 83 other members of Congress, asking DoJ pointedly why it hasn't prosecuted climate activists, like me, as domestic terrorists. In reply, DoJ pledged to vigorously prosecute those who damage “critical energy infrastructure in violation of federal law.”
That could have potential personal ramifications for me. I was one of the five "valve-turners" who, in a coordinated Oct. 11, 2016, action singled out in the Buck letter, closed the emergency valves on all five pipelines carrying Canadian tar sands oil into the U.S. Though Buck and his colleagues would like to brand us as domestic terrorists, we acted responsibly, with great care and concern for safety, to combat the climate change emergency by stopping the flow of the dirtiest, most carbon-intensive form of oil.
We have sought to make this case at our trials, via the “climate necessity defense,” which argues that our actions were justified by the greater climate harms we're seeking to avoid. In a precedent-setting decision, a judge in Clearwater County, Minn., granted my fellow valve-turners Emily Johnston and Annette Klapstein the right to mount a necessity defense in their upcoming trial for shutting off two Enbridge tar sands pipelines. The decision means they will be able to bring in expert witnesses and testimony about climate change and the climate damage tar sands do, and that the jury will be allowed to hear and consider them.
Leonard Higgins, who goes to trial on Nov. 21 for closing the Spectra Energy Express pipeline in Coal Banks, MT, was denied the right to a necessity defense, so his jury will not be allowed to hear or consider expert witnesses or testimony on climate change. Instead, those witnesses will speak publicly at a mock trial on Nov. 18.
Since all five "valve-turners" have already been charged under state laws, further federal action against us is unlikely. But Buck’s letter did prompt the DoJ to threaten federal action against citizen climate action — the only kind we're likely to get these days. So I and my fellow "valve-turners" sent a response to the Buck letter. It points out that, “At present, thanks to fossil fuel industry funded efforts, we the people cannot turn to our federal government for relief in addressing this single greatest threat to our health, wellbeing and security. Our own government has become an occupying force for interests inimical to our welfare.”
The consequence is that people like us, who are driven by conscience and conviction to take responsible climate action, get prosecuted on felony charges, while those profiting from climaticide are backed by the government. That leaves us with one option: to put our own bodies and freedom on the line. But we’re far from alone. As climate change advances and the circumstances grow more dire with policy solutions nowhere in sight, more people will feel compelled to act.
Ken Ward, co-founder of Climate Direct Action stood trial (twice, because of a hung jury) on felony charges for shutting off a safety valve on the TransMountain tar pipeline pipeline in Skagit County, Wash. He is a former deputy director of Greenpeace.