Doing Things You Might Regret

As they used to say, the whole world is watching—and unfortunately, that includes the most reactionary elements of the world.

This is why recent events in North Dakota bear close watching:

An environmental activist from Seattle was sentenced Tuesday to serve one year in prison for targeting an oil pipeline in North Dakota.

Michael Foster, 53, cut through a chain link fence and turned a shut-off valve on the Keystone pipeline in northeastern North Dakota on Oct. 11, 2016. His action was part of a four-state protest to draw attention to climate change and support demonstrations in southern North Dakota against the Dakota Access pipeline.

A Pembina County jury last October convicted Foster of conspiracy, criminal mischief and trespass but acquitted him of reckless endangerment. State District Judge Laurie Fontaine sentenced him in Cavalier on Tuesday to three years in prison with two years suspended, $825 in fees and possible restitution. He’ll be on probation for two years following his time behind bars.

Samuel Jessup of Winooski, Vermont, who filmed Foster’s protest, was sentenced Tuesday to two years of probation for conspiracy.

Foster and Jessup were among 11 activists with the group Climate Direct Action who were arrested in North Dakota, Minnesota, Montana and Washington state the day of the protest. The activists broke into private property and turned shut-off valves at five pipelines that moved oil from Canada to the U.S.

Foster doesn’t deserve to spend five seconds in prison for this act of civil disobedience when the real criminals—those who knowingly assaulted our atmosphere and contaminated our climate—will likely get off scot-free. However, there is another rather disturbing aspect to this case:

Among the other protesters, Ken Ward, of Corbett, Oregon, was convicted in Washington last June of burglary and sentenced to two days in jail plus community supervision and community service. Leonard Higgins of Portland, Oregon, was convicted in November of criminal mischief and trespassing in Montana and awaits a March 20 sentencing.

The Minnesota cases of Seattle-area residents Emily Johnston and Annette Klapstein are ongoing, with a state appeals court weighing a judge’s decision to allow the two women to use the so-called necessity defense. The defense is popular among environmental activists who argue that global warming caused by fossil fuels is a greater harm than their actions calling attention to it, though legal experts say it’s a long-shot defense. The judge didn’t allow it in Foster’s case.

If Johnston and Klapstein are ultimately allowed to use the climate necessity defense, and if they are ultimately acquitted by virtue of this defense, it will be a disaster disguised as a blessing for climate hawks, likely setting in motion a chain of events that that will lead to supporters of this legal tactic being viewed as persona non grata by other progressive activists.

As I have previously noted, the radical anti-abortion movement in the United States is salivating at the prospect of the climate necessity defense being successfully used to acquit climate activists engaging in civil disobedience against the fossil fuel industry. Once the climate necessity defense has been established as a successful legal tactic, you will see the anti-abortion right exploit this tactic to the full, going to new depths in their efforts to restrict reproductive access.

Anti-abortion radicals will copy the very same tactics climate activists have used to stymie the daily operations of the fossil fuel industry, knowing that they now have firm legal ground to unofficially undo a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy. Give anti-abortion radicals the avenue of acquittal paved by the precedent of the climate necessity defense, and they won’t need to officially overturn Roe v. Wade. Consequence-free right-wing civil disobedience would make Roe moot.

Sadly, what supporters of the climate necessity defense too often ignore is that they are not the only ones who think they’re protecting future generations. Anti-abortion radicals view reproductive health clinics the exact same way supporters of the climate necessity defense view oil, coal and natural-gas producers. Coathanger conservatives also think the status quo has got to go.

If supporters of the climate necessity defense unintentionally empower anti-abortion radicals with their actions, it will lead to further division and disarray on the left—the last thing this country needs. Who would benefit from a heated dispute between climate hawks and supporters of reproductive rights, besides the enemies of both climate hawks and supporters of reproductive rights?

There is a form of civil disobedience that will not cause unneeded consternation on the left, a form of civil disobedience that will not unwittingly empower anti-Roe agitators. There is a way to indict and convict the fossil-fuel industry for its heinous acts of violence against Mother Earth, to find guilty those who have inflicted injury upon the innocent. There is a way to keep peace on the left while bringing an end to the carbon cartel’s war on humanity.

It’s called voting.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.