“There’s tremendous controversy over…whether it even exists.”
During the high-profile trial of Ken Ward, a climate activist facing 30 years in prison for shutting down an oil pipeline, Judge Michael E Rickert said: “I don’t know what everybody’s beliefs are on [climate change], but I know that there’s tremendous controversy over the fact whether it even exists. And even if people believe that it does or it doesn’t, the extent of what we’re doing to ourselves and our climate and our planet, there’s great controversy over that.”
The Skagit County judge made the comments on 24 January while addressing Ward’s request to present a “necessity defense” in court, meaning he would argue that the grave threat of climate change justified civil disobedience.
“We are in the late stages of global collapse, and to have someone who is presumably as knowledgeable and aware as a judge should be blithely dismissing the biggest problem facing the world is chilling.”
Rickert’s controversial statements, along with his decision to block Ward from arguing that his pipeline protest was necessary to prevent harm to the planet, angered environmentalists who insist that American courts have an obligation to recognize the science and consensus among researchers about man-made climate change.
“I thought it was shocking and deeply worrisome for my case,” said Ward, 60, of Corbett, Oregon, who temporarily shut off the safety valve of the TransMountain pipeline in Skagit County. “We are in the late stages of global collapse, and to have someone who is presumably as knowledgeable and aware as a judge should be blithely dismissing the biggest problem facing the world is chilling.”
Ward, whose trial began on Monday, is part of a group of activists that targeted oil sands pipelines in Washington, Oregon, North Dakota, Montana and Minnesota on 11 October 2016. The coordinated #ShutItDown actions – which have led to a dozen criminal cases and threats of hefty prison sentences against activists and journalists – was aimed at stopping 15% of US crude oil imports for a day.
In courtrooms across the US, the activists are pushing to argue that these disruptions are a last resort given political inaction and are “legally justified to avoid the catastrophic harm caused to humanity by unprecedented climatic disruption”.
The legal battles are building on a historic Washington state case last year in which a judge for the first time permitted US climate activists to argue that a criminal act of civil disobedience was committed out of necessity.
The activists known as the Delta Five, who blocked an oil train near Seattle, claimed that their actions were a moral imperative and relied on testimony from climate scientists to bolster their case. The protesters lost in court, though the judge praised them as “part of the solution to the problem of climate change”.
There have been some victories for the necessity defense in the UK and in Massachusetts where a prosecutor in 2014 dropped charges against Ward and another activist who blocked a coal shipment, stating that “climate change is one of the gravest crises our planet has ever faced”.
But Rickert, an elected judge in Skagit county, north of Seattle, sided with state prosecutors who argued against the necessity defense and have alleged that Ward, co-founder of Climate Disobedience Center, committed burglary, criminal trespass and sabotage.
While explaining the standards for permitting a necessity defense, Rickert said: “It does need to have some immediacy, some imminence, more so than this particular threat and harm, which is climatic change, global warming, whatever.”
He later added that with climate change, there’s “great controversy” with “over half of our political leaders”. (Critics have slammed the GOP as the “only major party in the advanced world” to deny climate change).
Rickert also claimed that a single pipeline disruption would make no difference in any “disaster” in our environment, saying, “The actual harm to be avoided is not avoided at all. All that happens is a valve is turned.”
Leonard Higgins, a #ShutItDown activist who targeted a pipeline in Montana and sat in on Ward’s hearing, said he was stunned by Rickert’s explanation, especially since he has a reputation of being a progressive judge.
“My heart sunk,” said Higgins, who is facing felony charges for his demonstration. “I just did not expect him to say that climate science and climate change was still basically a matter for debate and that there was uncertainty about whether it was man-caused.”
By banning Ward from even bringing a necessity defense, the judge was prohibiting scientific evidence, Higgins added.
“This is a matter of fact that needs to be adjudicated by the jury. To be gagged before our jury that is considering whether he is deserving of prison for his crime is just wrong.”
Lauren Regan, one of Ward’s attorneys, argued that activists are justified in pursuing more extreme tactics when decades of legal protests and political organizing have failed to spark meaningful policy on climate change.
“They’re looking to see how can they be more effective in a faster timeframe,” she said. “It’s a symbolic act to draw attention to the fact that not only are these pipelines not invincible, but there is power within the people to stop these incredibly egregious pipelines.”
Rickert did not respond to requests for comment.