The Extraordinary Banality of Direct Climate Action

Jay O’Hara and Anthony Rogers-Wright

This week in Skagit County, Washington, a criminal trial is proceeding for what should be one of the most normal acts in US history: protecting life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for current and future generations. Today we find out the fate of a climate champion who put this idea to the test.

Ken Ward, of Corbett, Oregon, is on trial for taking action, with four other colleagues known as the “Valve Turners” in October 2016 to avert the impending climate crisis by shutting down the five main pipelines transporting Canadian tar sands oil into the United States.

“Valve Turner” Ken Ward with his Legal Team Outside of the Skagit County Courthouse

The actions of Ken and many others aren’t some aberration of disobedience, but a concerted strategy at this late hour to save what chance we have left for a livable future, capable of sustaining civilization on the only known planet in the universe capable of sustaining life.

In the courtroom yesterday, Ken’s attorney Lauren Regan laid out the circumstances we face: the climate that sustains life is on the brink of collapse, with governments subservient to corporate “rich fat cats” bent on profit at all costs.

Harkening back to the roots of the “American” Revolution, Regan evoked Edmund Burke saying, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” This quote — in addition to appealing to a kind of patriotism that could be unifying — illustrates exactly the position we find ourselves in at the beginning of the 21st century, a point in time where the science is profound and compelling; we are out of time and cannot afford to continue a business-as-usual scenario as it pertains to fossil fuel emissions. We need a radical paradigm shift not only in turning the page on the fossil fuel epoch, but also in how we turn the page.

As such, evoking the Declaration of Independence is in no way hyperbolic, in fact, by following the premise of the storied document, it could be argued that Ken’s actions were actually rather banal. As stated in the Declaration, “In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms.” A common tactic of the mainstream environmental “movement” entails petitioning lawmakers and corporations to cease and/or alter practice(s) harmful to human health and the physical environment.

While the petitions and phone calls have led to increasing awareness, they have done little for the overall climate emergency; some lawmakers and corporations even deny the existence of an anthropogenic climate emergency. This truth, in itself, lays out the necessity defense Ken Ward attempted to pursue in court:

The climate and other justice-seeking movements have done all this and more over the past 20 years. But to what effect? Just as the colonies were rebuffed by King George, the people have been rebuffed by King Coal and Big Oil, who now control the US government through access and investments in lawmakers via campaign donations. To this end, “Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.” The climate clock continues to tick and the new regime in Washington’s response has been to demonstrate reckless and abject ignorance, intransigence and utter indifference.

The US government has failed to adopt even the weakest attempts at reducing climate changing emissions, from the failure of cap-and-trade to last week’s withdrawal from the wholly inadequate Paris agreement, “He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.”

And so we have arrived at the point in the course of human events where it is once again necessary for people to dissolve the bonds of injustice and climate oppression that bind us and “assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them.”

It is past time for all citizens to assume responsibility for adhering to the Laws of Nature and to take action to avert climate cataclysm, like Ken Ward and Valve Turners have. “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be hanged for light or transient causes.”

Climate justice is no light or transient cause. The members of the jury here in Skagit County, Washington have a choice today to stand in the grand tradition of American history and find Ken Ward not guilty for assuming responsibility for his, and all of our, roles in bringing about the world we need. Ken Ward loves his country, his family and his community, his service and love for planet may be extraordinary, but in the context of the Declaration of Independence, his actions were both logical and banal — congruent with the grand paradigm that declared this nation, as imperfect and unjust as its “founding” was, free from the elements and agents of oppression.

Jay O’Hara is a Quaker and co-founder of the Climate Disobedience Center. He’s been known to occasionally pilot Lobster Boats.