Last month, the Clearwater County attorney filed an appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court, making a second attempt to limit expert testimony in my trial on felony charges. I’m one of four defendants in the Minnesota “valve-turner” trial — after extensive research, my friend Annette and I drove to a shut-off valve site for Enbridge pipelines 4 and 67 in Leonard, Minn., on Oct. 11, 2016. We cut the chains into the site, and our friend Ben called the company to give them our exact location, tell them that we were climate activists there in a peaceful protest against tar sands oil (the most carbon-intensive of all oils) and say that if they didn’t shut the valves remotely, we would do so. Our friend Steve, a documentary filmmaker, recorded the whole thing.
We began turning the valves and stopped a few minutes later when the company initiated remote shut-off. We stayed and waited (almost an hour) for the sheriff to arrest us. Friends of ours did the same at pipelines in North Dakota, Montana and Washington.
We did this because the federal government — even then, under the Obama administration — was (and is) utterly failing to address the imminent threat of climate change. We need to immediately stop the use of the dirtiest fuels — coal and tar sands — and reduce the use of other fossil fuels as quickly as possible. As quickly as if we wanted to leave a stable planet for our kids, because that’s what’s at stake.
We knew that if we risked prison time to draw attention to this failure and tried to shake the system up enough to respond, we might get people to listen to us. We might even get to use the legal “necessity defense” (see tinyurl.com/necessity-def), which would allow us to bring expert witnesses (scientists, mostly) to testify not only to what we did (which we’ve never denied) but also why we did it and why our actions were a reasonable response to an unreasonable crisis.
My friends and I are older, cautious people — I was the youngest, at 50 — and we have worked legally on the fight against climate change for years or decades as we grew increasingly worried by the science. We’ve written and signed petitions; organized protests; testified at hearings; met with our legislators; and much more. And we’ve watched the world get hotter, people die and be displaced, and governments dither — most of all our own. There are many reasons for this paralysis, starting with the amount of oil money in Congress and decades of lies from the fossil-fuel industry (see tinyurl.com/icn-report). But it cannot continue — if it does, it’s not just a few places here and there that are at risk; it’s everything (see tinyurl.com/uninhabitable-earth). And we’re running out of time (see tinyurl.com/rs-mckibben).
We know that we can’t stop fossil-fuel use overnight. We also know that we may already have passed some of the feared “tipping points” that render catastrophic climate change unstoppable, by creating feedback loops in which, for example, polar ice melts and the darker water left behind absorbs more heat, thus melting more ice, in a pattern we can no longer halt. Between these poles of knowledge lie continents defined by our ethics, determination and willingness to change. The technology is there — we only need to set our minds and backs to the task and move as seriously as we can toward the goal — 100 percent renewable energy — quite literally as fast as we can.
Our friends Leonard and Ken were sentenced to probation and community service. Our friend Michael is in prison in North Dakota right now; he’ll be released on Aug. 1. Only our trial remains — because the judge granted us the necessity defense. If this happens soon, it will be the first climate-focused necessity-defense trial in the U.S. (the week after ours was granted, another one — of a minister in Spokane, Wash. — was also granted; his has also been appealed).
When the judge granted us the use of this defense, he wasn’t saying that he thought we’d proved what we did was necessary, not by any means; he was simply saying that based on what we said and the evidence before him, there was a chance that we might be able to prove this. And since it seemed possible, he believed we had the right to fully assert our defense to a jury.
I was elated. This meant that we could bring serious scientists of both physics and social change into the courtroom to talk about how our national political paralysis is putting humanity at the most profound risk it has ever faced and why it was reasonable for us to think that our actions might make a difference.
The prosecutor appealed — this kind of testimony would obscure his very neat case (we didn’t deny a thing; we’d videotaped it all). The appellate court, after several months, agreed with the judge: The state of Minnesota should let us go forward with a full necessity-defense trial. Our witnesses should be allowed to speak to a jury of our peers.
But last month, the prosecutor appealed again — this time, to the state Supreme Court. The prosecutor, mind you, is not supposed to waste resources with frivolous appeals, and he’s supposed to act in the interests of the state, not the pipeline company. We know very well why the pipeline company doesn’t want us to present a necessity-defense trial; there’s a fair chance that if we can, we’ll win. And if we’re acquitted because our jury agrees that climate change poses unacceptable risks, the days of the pipeline company’s ability to treat its product as though it’s harmless are over.
If there is any chance that we’re right, then it’s obvious that the overwhelming interest of the state is not the prosecution of a minor property crime (the chains that we cut), but rather a clearer understanding of the imminent threat of a warming world. In light of this, our judge and the appellate court have indicated that they want our jury to hear what our witnesses have to say. If our expert witness aren’t persuasive that what we did was necessary, we’ll still be convicted. If they are so persuasive, though — then that truth overwhelms the interest of the state in a simple conviction on trespass and minor property damage.
People have asked me if I’m relieved by the appeal, because I can put the trial on the back burner and enjoy my summer. I’m not. I want to go to trial as soon as possible, because our need to face the reality of climate change is unthinkably urgent. I want us to do the best job we possibly can to make a persuasive case that we have to end the paralysis and fight climate change in a serious and determined way immediately.
I believe that this trial — like the suit brought by young people against the U.S. government or those filed by cities against the fossil-fuel industry — is one of our last, best chances to shift public opinion in this country, so that we finally demand a fighting chance for our kids.
I’m still willing to risk prison in order to help alert the world to the dangers we face. Let there be no more delay. Let our witnesses speak, and let the truth be heard.
Emily Johnston, of Seattle, is a poet and a co-founder of 350 Seattle.