By Scott T. Starbuck, SanDiego350
(Originally published in the San Diego Free Press on 2/19/2017)
Reuters reported that on October 11, activists in four states “shook the North American energy industry.” An appreciative audience at First Church of the Brethren greeted them Monday with $2,300 in donations for their legal funds, repeated applause, and a standing ovation honoring their vision and courage. A donation link has been set up for those who want to support Valve Turners. Of the group of five, Emily Johnston, Annette Klapstein, Leonard Higgins, and Michael Foster were present and spoke at the event. Ken Ward, the fifth member and first to face trial, was unable to attend due to preparing for a retrial after a jury in Mt. Vernon, Washington, refused to convict him on February 1. San Diego was the last California stop on this leg of the Valve Turners Speaking Tour that will take them from Pacific to Atlantic in effort to awaken consciences of citizens to respond to climate reality. The Valve Turners’ personal risk and message of nonviolent direct action has gained press locally at the UT, nationally in The Nation, and on Democracy Now!
Specifically, all of the five, as well as four of their videographers, are facing felony charges and prison sentences up to 51 years for coordinated actions which, according to former lawyer / current Valve Turner Annette Klapstein, “shut down all the major tar sands pipelines coming into the US across four states, in solidarity with [ . . .] brothers and sisters at Standing Rock who are struggling to stop the DAPL Pipeline and to call attention to the catastrophic climate emergency which the fossil fuel companies and their accomplices have created.” To highlight the seriousness of the situation, Ward, a former deputy director of Greenpeace USA, emphasized in a recent Willamette Week article, “The world is ending. Act freaked out.” Ward clarified his motive for shutting down Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Pipeline near Anacortes, Washington: “In five years we have to stop all new exploration for all fossil fuels, and we have to stop burning all coal, and we have to stop burning all tar sands.” Ward said street protests will never achieve these goals so he feels civil disobedience is the only viable option now to preserve a livable Earth.
During the Monday event, Valve Turners poet Emily Johnston said many support options are available for those unwilling or unable to risk arrest. Klapstein added, “We couldn’t have done what we did without a bunch of people supporting us. None of us started by shutting down pipelines. [ . . . .] [For example,] we just got the City of Seattle to divest 3 billion dollars from Wells Fargo because of Wells Fargo’s participation in the Dakota Access Pipeline.” Valve Turner Michael Foster, active in Our Children’s Trust landmark climate victory in Washington state, added “[This was possible because] we turned out about a thousand people to a City of Seattle finance meeting.”
Asked about fear regarding legal and personal consequences, Johnston responded with words from her biography at www.shutitdown.today, “I feel incredibly privileged to be alive in this moment, when so much is still so beautiful, and there’s still a chance to save it. But for years (decades, for some people) we’ve tried the legal, incremental, reasonable methods, and they haven’t been anything like enough; without a radical shift in our relationship to this Earth, all that we love will disappear. My fear of that possibility is far greater than my fear of jail.”
Valve Turner Leonard Higgins, retired from a 31 year career with Oregon state government, said this type of vulnerability is key. “It is vulnerability that is the true power of civil disobedience,” he said. “I’m so inspired by Standing Rock and the dignified and nonviolent resistance there.”
Asked about why them, and why now, Klapstein said, “I’m 64 years old. I’m the best conceivable person to take this risk. I call on old white people to take this position. What do I care if I have a felony conviction? I’m not going back in the workforce. It’s our job to do this.”
Johnston added that current global government policies, if successful, will limit warming to 3.5 Celsius (6.3 Fahrenheit) above preindustrial level. Science shows this to be an extremely dangerous scenario. Phys.org reported this temperature rise “would badly worsen droughts, floods and storms, and affect sea levels, spelling famine and homelessness for tens of millions.”
Foster said, “We’re at 406 ppm of carbon today. The window of opportunity for getting back to 350 ppm is closing. [While we risked up to 51 years in prison,] the major sacrifices will be made by those who aren’t born yet. We don’t have CNN but we have you. Please post our info on social media. Use #shutitdown if you want it to go to all of the people following this. According to The Guardian, we are changing Earth’s climate 170 times faster than it has ever changed itself.”
Foster added, “Stanford professor Mark Jacobson put together thesolutionsproject.org which shows how all 50 states can get to zero carbon by 2050. Jacobson has offered to be a witness in our trials. We have to do the renewables, and we have to shut down fossil fuels immediately. We must do both simultaneously.”
Other communities are responding. Klapstein noted activists who shut the Line 9 Pipeline near the Québec-Ontario border in Canada by locking themselves beside a valve had “all their charges dropped about a month ago.” Similarly, in Ward’s previous action using a lobster boat in Massachusetts to block the delivery of 40,000 tons of coal to the Brayton Point Power Plant on May 15, 2013, Bristol County District Attorney Sam Sutter asked that the charges brought against Ward be dropped or reduced, made a public statement in support of Ward, and became a climate activist joining a “People’s Climate March” in New York with an estimated 300,000 people.
One goal of the Valve Turners is to get judges to allow a “necessity” defense bringing in expert climate change witnesses like Bill McKibben to increase judicial and public awareness.
The Valve Turners Celebrate with SanDiego350. Photo by Amy KnightUnfortunately, the prosecuting attorney near Ward’s recent action in Anacortes, Washington, wasn’t as brave and/or informed, but thankfully the jury was. The climate change denying judge couldn’t hold back the jury’s conscience, and SanDiego350.org hopes this trend will continue and expand in the coming months as evidence of unacceptable harm to climate is ever clearer and people wake up to the power of nonviolent direct action en masse. Johnston said, “No nonviolent civil disobedience action has ever lost when they had 3.5% of the population.”
Scott T. Starbuck’s next book of climate change poems, Hawk on Wire (Fomite, 2017) will be available at amazon.com this spring. His ecoblog is Trees, Fish, and Dreams. Starbuck’s previous book Industrial Oz: Ecopoems (Fomite, 2015) was noted by Bill McKibben as “rousing, needling, haunting.”