In a victory for three climate activists facing felony charges for their participation in a 2016 multi-state #ShutItDown action that temporarily disabled tar sands pipelines crossing the U.S.-Canada border, a Minnesota state judge dismissed all charges on Tuesday, determining that the prosecution had failed to demonstrate any evidence of damage to a pair of Enbridge pipelines.
“While I’m very glad that the court acknowledged that we did not damage the pipelines, I’m heartbroken that the jury didn’t get to hear our expert witnesses and their profoundly important warnings about the climate crisis.”
—Emily Johnston, valve turner
Although relieved that they will not spend years behind bars, the win was somewhat bittersweet for valve turners Annette Klapstein and Emily Johnston, and their support person Ben Joldersman, who all had planned to present a “necessity defense,” arguing their coordinated civil disobedience to shut down tar sands pipelines was necessary because of the imminent threat that fossil fuels pose to the planet and those who inhabit it.
“While I’m very glad that the court acknowledged that we did not damage the pipelines, I’m heartbroken that the jury didn’t get to hear our expert witnesses and their profoundly important warnings about the climate crisis,” defendant Emily Johnston, a Seattle resident and poet, said in a statement. “We are fast losing our window of opportunity to save ourselves and much of the beauty of this world. We turned those valves to disrupt the business-as-usual that we know is leading to catastrophe, and to send a strong message that might focus attention to the problem.”
In a series of tweets, Johnston reiterated frustration that Judge Robert Tiffany, in a “stunning” reversal last week, had ruled against long planned expert testimony about the global climate crisis and civil disobedience. Some experts still were slated to testify for the defense as the landmark trial began on Monday, but she noted that the decision had been a “big” blow.
Dr. James Hansen, a former NASA scientist who has been called “the father of modern climate change awareness,” was one of the expert witnesses who planned to testify for the defense.
“It’s great that the defendants were found not guilty, but we missed an opportunity to inform the public about the injustice of climate change. Now we need to go on offense against the real criminals, the government,” he declared. “The government, especially the Trump administration, is guilty of not protecting the constitutional rights of young people. They should have a plan to phase down fossil fuel emissions, but instead they aid and abet the expansion of fossil fuel mining, which, if not stopped, will guarantee devastating consequences for young people.”
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The judge’s latest decision came just a day after a new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned of the limited time the global community has left to make the “rapid, far-reaching, and unprecedented” societal changes needed to curb greenhouse gas emissions enough to prevent a full-blow climate catastrophe.
“Now we need to go on offense against the real criminals, the government… They should have a plan to phase down fossil fuel emissions, but instead they aid and abet the expansion of fossil fuel mining.”
—Dr. James Hansen, former NASA scientist
The case in Minnesota would have been the only one in which those who engaged in the 2016 action would have been allowed—thanks to a ruling from the state Supreme Court—to argue that their actions were justified because of the climate crisis. Washington, North Dakota, and Montana state courts had denied requests from fellow valve turners to present a necessity defense.
Lauren Regan, executive director of the Oregon-based Civil Liberties Defense Center, explained in a statement circulated by Climate Direct Action that while the Minnesota defendants were acquitted, the case still set two important precedents in terms of defending future climate activists for engaging in civil disobedience.
“First, the climate necessity defense was upheld by the highest court in the state, which affirmed that these climate activists had the right to assert the climate necessity defense to a jury,” she said. “Further, the defendants were acquitted of felony criminal damage to critical energy infrastructure and pipelines. In an attack on our democracy, this law, like others of its kind in 31 states, was pushed through the state legislature at the behest of the fossil fuel industry, which sought to increase the penalties against activists who dared to challenge the profiteering motives of some of the biggest corporations.”
Klapstein, a retired attorney from the Seattle area, said she had “mixed feelings” about the acquittal because they were denied the opportunity to present the historic climate necessity defense. She also pointed out that “we were treated more gently by the court than any people of color ever are and we know that is in part because of our white privilege. As older white people we are often in the best position to take the riskier actions.”
“We know from our young activist friends who are people of color that when they take any kind of direct action, they run the risk of having police showing up and shooting them. And this happens over and over for no reason whatsoever. And when they are arrested they are almost always treated more harshly by the criminal justice system,” Klapstein continued. “We see this in the trials of the indigenous people who were arrested at Standing Rock many of them have been charged with felonies for doing much less than the valve turners did, and most of them are being convicted and given harsh sentences.”
Expressing relief that she no longer has “to be so careful about committing other acts of civil disobedience,” Klapstein emphasized the importance of fighting to keep raising public awareness and forcing action to combat the climate crisis. “It is absolutely morally unacceptable to me to stand idly by,” she concluded, “while even one life is sacrificed so that greedy oil company executives and their already rich shareholders and the banks who fund them can continue to make their even more obscene profits at the expense of all life on Earth.”
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