Being a climate activist is a noble calling. It’s a way of putting pressure on national and business leaders to accept responsibility to safeguard a livable future. Solving the climate crisis requires making rapid social and technological change for which “there is no documented historic precedent,” as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) phrased it.
Climate activists have used a variety of tactics to pressure companies and political leaders to reduce global reliance on fossil fuels, from direct actions like blocking pipeline construction to lobbying politicians and raising awareness. Coming together as collectives and communities has put pressure on policy makers and modeled alternative pathways toward sustainable living.
Public discourse can also make a climate activist a target of judicial harassment from the fossil fuel industry.
Climate change represents an urgent and potentially irreversible threat to human societies and the planet. Fossil fuel companies knew for decades that they held significant culpability for the degrading climate, and they enacted systemic measures to hide what they knew. Big Oil — led by ExxonMobil — has used its money and influence to short circuit attempts by federal and state officials to reduce the amount of carbon emissions created when oil is extracted, transported, refined, and then burned.
Time and time again, a climate activist has spoken up and tried to make transparent the devastation that Big Oil has wrought, only to be slammed down by authorities. First it was arrests for protests. Now attempts to silence those who speak out against Big Polluters have taken another turn.
EarthRights International has uncovered a trend in the US and abroad of closing civic space, where those who exercise their fundamental rights to speak up about matters of public interest face retaliation in the form of judicial harassment and physical violence. Their investigation identified 152 cases in the past 10 years where the fossil fuel industry has used strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP) and other judicial harassment tactics in attempts to silence or punish its critics in the US.
These types of judicial harassment are an ever-present threat to many people who speak up on political and social issues. Companies and individuals file hundreds of SLAPPs each year in state and federal courts. They target community leaders, journalists, activists, and everyday citizens from across the political spectrum who speak up about a wide range of issues.
But What About The First Amendment?
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
The First Amendment to the US Constitution represents the essence of US democracy, but the US legal system is being used to stifle these guaranteed freedoms.
Judicial intimidation tactics have been used to stop critics from organizing against oil, gas, and coal extraction, including 93 strategic lawsuits against public participation and 49 “abusive subpoenas” directed at individuals and groups.
The report, titled “The Fossil Fuel Industry’s Use of SLAPPs and Judicial Harassment in the United States,” is the first to quantify the lengths fossil fuel companies go to within the judicial system to silence their critics. Here are some samples.
- 4 anti-fracking activists in Colorado and a reporter who filmed their protests in 2018
- Numerous groups and people who demonstrated against the Dakota Access Pipeline
- A grassroots group that spoke out about public health concerns regarding a coal ash landfill in Alabama
Case Study: Dakota Access Pipeline Climate Activist Threats
In July, 2016, the US government gave permission for a fossil fuel company, Energy Transfer Partners, to run an oil pipeline beneath a lake in North Dakota that provides the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe with their primary source of drinking water. For months, the tribe had opposed the Dakota Access Pipeline, which threatened to contaminate their water and damage dozens of sacred sites. The government’s decision sparked outrage across the US and turned the pipeline into a symbol of the struggle to protect Indigenous sovereignty and land rights.
Thousands of supporters arrived in North Dakota to join protests to block construction from moving forward. Tensions escalated quickly. Energy Transfer Partners collaborated with federal law enforcement agencies and local police as they arrested hundreds. Protesters reported being attacked by private security forces with dogs and mace, while the pipeline company allegedly sent undercover agents to infiltrate the protest camps.
In August, 2017 Energy Transfer Partners sued several Greenpeace entities and others, alleging that their support for the Standing Rock protests made them part of a “network of putative not-for-profits and rogue eco-terrorist groups.” The company demanded $900 million in damages under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, a law created to fight the mafia. Later, the company added several other individuals, including Indigenous water protectors, to the lawsuit.
The purpose of these lawsuits was not to recover damages but to intimidate other would-be protesters. Energy Transfer Partners was involved in several pipeline projects around the country that had stirred local opposition.
The company’s chief executive, Kelcy Warren, told a North Dakota news anchor, “Could we get some monetary damages out of this thing, and probably will we? Yeah, sure. Is that my primary objective? Absolutely not. It’s to send a message — you can’t do this, this is unlawful, and it’s not going to be tolerated in the United States.”
Final Thoughts to Support a Climate Activist
EarthRights International, a nonprofit legal organization, recommends several steps that policymakers, civil society, and the private sector should take to end the use of judicial harassment tactics in the US. Their policy brief provides specific guidance on how to:
- Promote broader public awareness of the threat.
- Provide at-risk people and organizations with access to legal support.
- Adopt anti-SLAPP laws for all federal and state courts.
- Hold lawyers accountable for using abusive tactics.
- End the practice of treating protesters like terrorists.
These recommendations are not only relevant to environmental and social justice activists but to all people in the United States who want to exercise their rights to speak up about issues that matter to their communities. Even some fossil fuel heirs have joined in with financial support to fight against the fossil fuel companies. Civil society organizations across the United States are working together to end this threat, reaching across the aisle for bipartisan action where possible. Protecting the First Amendment remains a critical issue for Democrats and Republicans alike.
In the coming decades, debates over the future of energy will continue as climate change affects more communities across the US. The authors of the report argue that people must be able to add their voice, without fear of retaliation, to the public debates that will determine the future direction of the US and the planet.
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