Guest essay by Eric Worrall
Climate activists on trial for blocking an oil train may be about to set a controversial legal precedent. According to Mother Jones, for the first time in American legal history, activists will be allowed to present their concerns about climate change as a legal defence for their allegedly criminal actions;
Activists on Trial for Blocking Oil Train Will Argue It Was Justified by Climate Change
n September 2014, five climate activists with Rising Tide Seattle managed to halt the passage of a crude oil train at the BNSF Delta rail yard in Everett, Wash. After eight hours blocking the tracks, the five were arrested and charged with criminal trespass and blocking a train. Today, they go on trial.
In court, the activists—known as the Delta 5—will argue their act of civil disobedience was necessary. A spokesperson for Rising Tide said the activists “will be the first ever to argue that their actions were justified because of the threat of climate change, using the ‘necessity defense.’ The outcome of [the] trial could set national precedent for climate related civil disobedience and is being carefully watched.” The defendants will call on a rail safety expert and a climate scientist to argue that their actions were justified.
“There came a point where I could no longer sit back and wait for the politicians to act,” said Delta 5 member Patrick Mazza. “I had to put my body on the line to demand not talk, but action on a massive scale to rapidly replace fossil fuels.”
I’m sympathetic to concerns about shipping oil by rail. In my opinion, building an oil pipeline, like the pipeline President Obama recently vetoed, is a much safer way to transport flammable hydrocarbons, than transporting oil by train.
But how could climate concern possibly be a plausible defence for criminal acts?
The law recognises that extraordinary actions, which would normally be illegal, are sometimes justified in extreme circumstances, such as an immediate threat to someone’s life.
However, Climate Change in no sense qualifies as an immediate threat to someone’s life. Climate change does not have the same desperate imminence, as extraordinary circumstances which are currently recognised by the law, such as responding to a home invasion or a violent assault. Even if climate change ultimately threatened the survival of humanity, it is advancing at a literally glacial pace.
Activists should recognise that there is time for them to change climate policy by legal means, through political campaigns, to try to persuade voters to support the climate cause at the ballot box. Committing crimes won’t persuade people, except for the handful who already think climate change is a major threat. The fact voters aren’t listening is not a justification for breaking the law. If activists want people to listen, they could start by presenting a compelling case for action – something they have so far failed to provide.
Having said this, there is precedent, a possibility the protestors might win their court case. In 2008, protestors in England were found not guilty of criminal damage, after presenting a climate defence.
UPDATE – It looks like the “necessity defence” has just been rejected by the court. http://qz.com/594560/a-judge-just-dealt-a-bitter-setback-to-us-climate-change-protesters/