On the morning of October 11, 2016, in what today might seem a different political era, five middle-aged climate activists from Washington and Oregon posted a well-reasoned if somewhat unusual letter to President Barack Obama. In the letter the activists laid out the case, as supported by science that Obama claimed to accept, for an expeditious end to the extraction and burning of coal and tar-sands oil in order to have a shot at the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above the preindustrial average. Pointing to the lack of any plausible legal means to bring about such a halt, they went on to inform the president that their only available option was to engage in direct action: “which is why we are acting today,” they wrote, “to shut down the five pipelines used to transport tar sands oil from Alberta [Canada] into the US.”
With civilization and the future of human life itself in the balance, “the sane choice is to act now,” the activists wrote to Obama. “Which raises the practical question of what a concerned citizen should do when our governments and economic systems are committed to a course of global suicide and are willing and able to bend the political system and civic discourse to their will.”
The action that those five concerned citizens, now known to the world as the Valve Turners, took that day—manually closing the emergency shut-off valves on tar-sands pipelines in Washington, Montana, North Dakota, and Minnesota, then peacefully awaiting their arrest—surely stands among the boldest acts of nonviolent civil disobedience, on climate or any other issue, in memory. As Reuters reported, it “shook the North American energy industry,” stopping the flow of tar-sands oil from Canada, equaling some 15 percent of daily US consumption. They acted independently, without the backing of major environmental and climate groups. Three of the Valve Turners have been tried and convicted of felony charges—Ken Ward in Washington, Leonard Higgins in Montana, and Michael Foster in North Dakota—and one of them, Foster, has served time in prison.
Now, in conservative Clearwater County in northwest Minnesota, the remaining two Valve Turners, Annette Klapstein and Emily Johnston, along with support-team member Ben Joldersma, are set to go to trial in district court on October 8. In what is already a landmark case, District Court Judge Robert Tiffany issued a written opinion granting use of the “necessity defense” (denied in the other three cases), and in July the Minnesota Supreme Court allowed the rarely approved defense to go forward. That means Klapstein, Johnston, and Joldersma will testify before a jury—along with expert witnesses such as former top NASA climate scientist James Hansen (now of Columbia University), Middlebury environmental scholar and 350.org founder Bill McKibben, Princeton political scientist Martin Gilens, Harvard Law School’s Lawrence Lessig, and others—that their actions were necessary and legally justified in response to the threat of catastrophic climate change. If the judge instructs jurors to consider the evidence of necessity, it will be a historic first in a climate-related jury trial in the United States—at a time when states are cracking down on peaceful protest against fossil-fuel infrastructure.