Climate Protest Ain’t For Sissies: The Saga Of Ken Ward Is A Cautionary Tale For Us All

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Ken Ward is a climate activist from Oregon. On October 11, 2016, he and 4 colleagues managed to close valves on pipelines in four states that transport oil from the Alberta tar sands to refineries in the United States. The group, who came to be known as “valve turners,” are members of Climate Direct Action.

Ken Ward via Twitter
Image credit: Ken Ward via Twitter

Prior to closing the valves, Ward says in a story he wrote for The Guardian, “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).”

Why would he and his colleagues do such a thing? Ward explains it this way. “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.”

For his efforts, he has been charged with two felonies and a misdemeanor. After a trial, the jury deadlocked on the felony charges. At a second trial on one felony count, the jury again deadlocked but convicted Ward on a misdemeanor count of burglary. The Supreme Court of Washington ruled last September that the trial judge erred by refusing to allow Ward to plead that his actions were necessitated by the refusal of duly constituted authorities to take appropriate action to address the existential crisis presented by an overheating planet.

Pursuant to that ruling, Ward will have an opportunity to make that argument to a jury. He intends to call a number of climate scientists to testify on his behalf at that trial to demonstrate that necessity is a valid defense to a criminal charge — and arguably the only defense available in a society that increasingly criminalizes climate motivated protests.

What Makes A Person An Environmental Terrorist?

Recently, Property Of The People, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the notion that government records belong to the people, revealed that the Department of Homeland Security had included Ken Ward and other “valve turners” on a list of extremists who are dangerous domestic terrorists. Also on the list are Dylann Roof, the madman who murdered 9 people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina; Robert Dear, who used an AK-47 to murder 3 people at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs; and Micah Johnson, who killed five police officers in a shooting spree in Dallas.

Mike German, a former FBI agent who is now a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice, said in an email to The Guardian that the inclusion of Ward and his colleagues on that list was “highly misleading because white supremacists are responsible for the bulk of this violence and almost all of the fatalities that result. There is little evidence that environmentalists have engaged in the types of deadly violence that would meet the statutory definition of terrorism.

Sam Jessup, one of the activists named in the document, added in a separate email, “Equating mass murder by white supremacists with what Michael and I did is totally obscene. This whole infrastructure of so-called security has done little more than secure the future of the fossil fuel industry by terrorizing people into silence.” He thinks the only way to get the message across is for more people to come forward to protest. When the jails are filled with dissidents, the government will be forced to address climate change and not before. Few have volunteered to follow his example, however.

Ken Ward was stunned when he learned that he was included in that list of actual terrorists. He writes in The Guardian,

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.

Few CleanTechnica readers would disagree with his bleak assessment.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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