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Tar Sands Valve Turners & Dr. James Hansen: We Need Civil Disobedience to Fight Climate Change

Web ExclusiveOctober 11, 2018
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On October 11, 2016, activists in North Dakota, Washington, Montana and Minnesota turned the manual safety valves on four pipelines, temporarily halting the flow of nearly 70 percent of the crude oil imported to the United States from Canada. They came to be known as the “valve turners.” What followed was a lengthy legal battle that ended with some of the activists in jail. But on Tuesday, three valve turners who broke into an oil pipeline facility in Minnesota on that day in 2016 were acquitted. In this web exclusive, we feature an extended conversation with two of the valve turners, Annette Klapstein and Emily Johnston, their attorney, Kelsey Skaggs, and former NASA scientist Dr. James Hansen.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Part 2 of our discussion about what just took place in Minnesota, where a court has acquitted three anti-pipeline activists who broke into an oil pipeline facility intending to cut off the flow of tar sands oil coming into the United States from Canada. The so-called valve turners, Annette Klapstein and Emily Johnston, along with a support person, Benjamin Joldersma, are part of the group Climate Direct Action.

Emily Johnston, a poet and co-founder of, and Annette Klapstein, retired attorney for the Puyallup Tribe and member of the Raging Grannies, they’re joining us from Minneapolis, along with their attorney, Kelsey Skaggs, and Dr. James Hansen, the former top climate scientist at NASA, who came to Minnesota to testify in their trial. The judge said no to his expert testimony but then acquitted the valve turners.

So I wanted to begin with Emily, to go back in time. This action actually took place exactly two years ago, in October of 2016. You were in—this was the time of the heat of the presidential election. It was also the standoff at Standing Rock and everything that was happening against the Dakota Access pipeline in North Dakota. Emily, talk about why you chose to do what you did and what the different actions were in different states, from Washington to Montana to where you were, in Minnesota, and exactly where you were when you engaged in this civil disobedience.

EMILY JOHNSTON: Sure. We did our action in Minnesota in Clearwater County. And the other—our friends that were working with us shut down pipelines in North Dakota, Montana and Washington state. This was all of the major tar sands crude pipelines coming into the U.S. from Canada. And we did it because tar sands are a disaster for the climate, and we are all terrified of the effects of climate change, that it’s already happening on the world, we know, with the increased hurricanes, wildfires, droughts, floods, etc. And we know that it’s going to get much, much worse, especially if we don’t stop burning tar sands as soon as possible.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to another valve turner, Leonard Higgins, speaking as he closed the valve at the site of Spectra Energy’s Express pipeline in Coal Banks Landing, Montana, back in—well, just when you did it—October of 2016.

LEONARD HIGGINS: I’m in Coal Banks, Montana, just north of the Missouri River, at a block valve on the Spectra Express pipeline. It carries tar sands oil from Canada down into the U.S. for refining. And we have to stop especially burning coal and tar sands oil. They are major emitters of the carbon dioxide that is causing the planet to heat. In Paris, 192 nations agreed that we need to keep global warming to a limit of 1.5 degrees centigrade. And it’s obvious from the science, what we’re hearing, that we’re going to blow right past that. And we’re in a state of emergency to protect our loved ones and our families, our communities. We need to step up as citizens and take action where our leaders are not. And so that’s what I’m prepared to do when I close the valve, along with the other team.

AMY GOODMAN: That was valve turner Leonard Higgins, who was found guilty of criminal mischief and misdemeanor criminal trespass and sentenced to three years’ deferred imprisonment, meaning he won’t serve jail time. Higgins’ conviction has been appealed on the basis that he was denied a necessity defense—and we’re going to talk more about the necessity defense with our guests. But I want to go to another valve turner, Michael Foster, speaking, again, back in October 2016, exactly two years ago, as he went to shut down a valve for TransCanada’s Keystone pipeline in Walhalla, North Dakota.

MICHAEL FOSTER: Keystone pipeline, North Dakota. I’m Michael Foster. In order to preserve life as we know it and civilization, give us a fair chance and our kids a fair chance, I’m taking action as a citizen. I am duty-bound.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Michael Foster, convicted of criminal mischief, conspiracy to commit to criminal mischief, both of which are felonies, as well as criminal trespass, a misdemeanor. He was sentenced to three years, two deferred, for which he served six months. Michael Foster’s conviction has been appealed on the question of the application of state law.

Sam Jessup, who live-streamed Foster’s action, was convicted of conspiracy to commit criminal mischief and conspiracy trespass and was required to pay $5,000 restitution.

We just heard from Emily Johnston. Annette Klapstein, you and Emily were engaged in this action at the same time in another state, in Minnesota. What went into your decision to leave—you live in Washington state, is that right?—and to go to Minnesota—


AMY GOODMAN: —to engage in this, knowing you could face very dire consequences for what you did?

ANNETTE KLAPSTEIN: I feel that as an older person, this is my job. I need to step up to protect future generations, who have no chance at a decent life if we don’t very rapidly turn around what we are doing to the climate. I’m a member of a group called the Seattle Raging Grannies. We are all about protecting the future for our grandchildren from a host of issues. But we decided in 2012 the—it’s an international group, and we decided in 2012, across all of the groups in Canada and the U.S., that climate change had to be our number one issue that we had to address. So, I do feel that I had no choice, that my conscience would not let me do otherwise than do everything in my power to turn this around, because our political system is absolutely not addressing it.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain what the necessity defense is and what it meant that you were allowed to offer that defense, though, ultimately, your expert witnesses, like who you’re sitting next to right now, James Hansen, were denied.

ANNETTE KLAPSTEIN: The necessity defense, in very shorthand, is when you basically plead that you technically did do a crime, but you did it to prevent a greater harm. So, in this case, yes, you know, we did technically cut some chains on some enclosures—technically, that is a crime—but we did it to prevent the overwhelming harm that is going to happen to everyone on this planet.

I will let our lawyer, Kelsey Skaggs, get into the more technical version of it, but, you know, this comes out of English common law. And basically, the example that’s usually used is there’s a burning building, there’s a child in it, you break in and, you know, save the child and are charged with burglary, and you come out and say, “Well, yes, technically I did commit burglary, because I had to break in, but I did it to save a child’s life.” And we have a planet that’s on fire, and all of our children are going to burn if we don’t do something about it.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Kelsey Skaggs, you’re the attorney for the valve turners, who just got acquitted. Explain—the necessity defense was allowed for—to be presented, but the expert witnesses, like Dr. Hansen, like Bill McKibben, were not allowed to speak.

KELSEY SKAGGS: That’s correct. So, a year ago, we received a ruling in this case allowing us to present the necessity defense, which, as Annette mentioned, means that you get to argue that you acted to prevent a greater harm, a lesser evil, and that you didn’t have a legal means available to do that, to prevent that harm, and that what you did was effective. So, it’s an old legal argument, and it’s also a very good fit for climate change-related protest cases like this case.

Unfortunately, directly before the trial was set to begin, the judge issued another ruling that was contradictory to the ruling of a year ago, in which she said that we would be prevented from calling expert witnesses to talk about the issues of climate change or civil disobedience. Now, obviously, both of those issues are central to this case, so it was a real blow to our ability to effectively prevent the climate necessity defense.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to another valve turner, Ken Ward, who shut off the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline in Anacortes, Washington, as part of the coordinated effort. This is from the film Valve Turners.

KEN WARD: I have been charged by the prosecuting attorney for Skagit County, Washington, with four crimes—burglary, criminal trespass, sabotage and assemblage of saboteurs—for my action last Tuesday, closing a safety valve on the Trans Mountain pipeline and blocking the flow of Canadian tar sands oil from Alberta to the Anacortes refineries. There is no question about what I did. I live-streamed it. And you can see the video at www.ShutItDown.Today. The only question is whether what I did was an appropriate and practical response to what President Obama recently described as the “terrifying climate conditions.”

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was valve turner Ken Ward. In a split verdict, Ward was found guilty of one count of burglary and sentenced to time served and 30 days of community service. His conviction has been appealed on the basis that he was denied a necessity defense, and will be heard by a Washington appeals court in November. I wanted to ask Emily Johnston about the map of pipelines that you are all targeting. And did you talk to each other, deciding which pipelines you would all try to shut down two years ago, in October, just in the lead-up to the November election?

EMILY JOHNSTON: Yes, we sure did. We needed to do a fair amount of research to know exactly where we should go and which pipelines were where and where all these pipelines came into the U.S. And as it turns out, the math of that was that we—the amount of oil we shut down for about a day was the equivalent of 15 percent of U.S. daily oil consumption. So it was substantial, and we had not realized that in advance.

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain Enbridge’s role here—and is it just Enbridge that you’re targeting?—for people who are not familiar with pipeline politics in the United States. I mean, for example, Energy Transfer Partners, which owns the Dakota Access pipeline, starting—taking the Bakken—fracked oil from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota, ultimately headed to the Gulf. You have Enbridge, the pipelines you targeted. Explain what the Enbridge corporation is.

EMILY JOHNSTON: It’s a Canadian company, tar sands company. And not all of the pipelines belong to Enbridge. Just ours in Minnesota did at the time. And now they also own the one in Montana. So, like Keystone XL—that’s what a lot of people have heard of. That’s TransCanada, another tar sands pipeline company. We chose to target the tar sands, not so much the specific companies, because they are so incredibly dirty and carbon-intensive. And we also hoped, precisely, that by doing the action in four states, we knew we would get four chances at getting the necessity defense. And it was very important to us to try and put our story and the testimony of our expert witnesses in front of a jury.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, in Part 1 of our discussion, Emily, you said, at the end, you were very disappointed that you couldn’t introduce your expert witnesses. People might have been surprised, because, unlike in these other cases of your co-activists across the country, you were acquitted. And yet you talked about how disappointed you were. Explain.

EMILY JOHNSTON: Yeah. It’s a very complex feeling, really, because we are grateful not to be going to prison, and it’s great not to have a felony charge, but the truth is, we didn’t do this in order to get away with something. And we were fully prepared to go to jail. What we really wanted to do was to bring this case, again, before a jury of our peers and have—make change through the judicial system. And many people have attempted to do this around climate change. It’s come very close several times now. And we thought we were going to be able to do that. So, it’s pretty heartbreaking. All of our expert witnesses are incredibly articulate and are authoritative. I think the case that we would have made as a group would have been irrefutable. And I think there’s a very good chance that we would have had at least a hung jury, if not an acquittal. And I think that would have made real waves within the judicial system and also in the public eye.

AMY GOODMAN: And again, you did have an acquittal, but it wasn’t a jury acquittal. It was before the trial.


AMY GOODMAN: And it was the judge. I want to turn to one of those expert witnesses that were not allowed to testify, Dr. Bruce Snyder, the physician who was set to testify in your trial about the impact of climate change on public health. He spoke outside the courthouse after the acquittal was announced.

DR. BRUCE SNYDER: My concern with these issues has to do with public health. And what’s happening, when we talk about climate change or we talk about fossil fuels, there’s kind of this other piece, which is pollution, that really needs to be addressed, because when we—well, let me just give you an example. The tar sands—the Alberta tar sands operations have been shown to be the largest source of airborne air pollution in North America. Now, this is having consequences for our health—people with asthma, people with heart disease, people who are at risk for stroke, young children. This kind of pollution increases the risks of developmental disorders. It increases the risks of low birth weight and even SIDS, crib deaths. We’ve got a lot of health issues tied into this. And in some sense, it’s—we think, I think, that it’s the responsibility of major businesses and corporations to do a lot of good things, but to also take into account the health of their communities. After all, they have children, too.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was Dr. Bruce Snyder, the physician who was set to testify at the valve turners trial, who didn’t get to testify. And we are joined by Dr. James Hansen, the former top climate scientist at NASA. From 1981 to 2013, he was the head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, now the director of Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, who also traveled to Minnesota to testify at the trial for the valve turners and didn’t get to, before they were acquitted. The judge said she would not take expert witness testimony. But, Dr. Hansen, explain what you would have said if you were in court under oath.

JAMES HANSEN: Well, my intention is to try to get typical members of the public to understand the urgency of the climate issue. I think most of the public does not really understand that, just because, you know, the—what we see happening so far. We see climate effects occurring now, but what is in store in the coming decades is much greater. And we need to get the public to understand that. And so, this is a chance to see if we can in fact get typical public members to understand this.

You know, the things like sea level rise, well, we see it’s occurring, but so far it’s measured in inches or a good fraction of a foot. But if we let tar sands emissions and other greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, we’re going to be talking about meters, and we’re going to be talking about losing all of our coastal cities, which is, you know, incredible to think of it. It’s hard to see how the planet would be governable. More than half of our large cities are on the coastline.

And there are the other effects. We will drive a significant fraction of the species on the planet to extinction. And, of course, we see already the beginnings of more extreme events—stronger storms, greater droughts, increasing fires. But these are just a small beginning of what’s in store for our children and grandchildren. So we really have to draw attention to that, because we can still address the problem, but we have to begin very quickly.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, Annette Klapstein talked about being a Raging Granny and talked about what she sees her role is as an elder now in the United States. And that, she sees, is engaging in civil disobedience and warning younger people who inherit the Earth. You have gone on quite a journey yourself, Dr. James Hansen. Most recently I’ve seen you with your granddaughter involved with activism. But you were the head of the Goddard Space Institute, the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, for many years. You were raising the alarms, testifying before Congress under President George W. Bush, as the Bush administration was vacuuming the words, you know, “global warming” off of websites. You then went from your role as a leading scientist in this country to engaging in civil disobedience yourself. What—at least four times you were arrested. And I was wondering if you can talk about the transition you made in your life, even as you continue to, you know, talk about your work as a scientist.

JAMES HANSEN: Yeah. About 12 or 13 years ago, I realized that, although the science had become clearer and clearer, there were no policy changes being made. Global emissions just continued to get greater and greater. And I did not want my grandchildren to say, “Opa understood what was happening, but he didn’t make it clear.” So I thought, well, it would be—I could make it clearer in public talks. But it’s really hard to communicate with the greater public when our governments just don’t pay attention.

So, these civil disobedience cases—actually, I was arrested five times. I’ve decided it’s more effective if we go on the offense rather than trying to defend the valve turners and the other people who have tried to draw attention. So, we’ve filed a lawsuit against the federal government for violating the constitutional rights of young people and future generations. I’m sure you’ve heard about the Our Children’s Trust lawsuit, which will go to trial later this month, unless the government can succeed in getting another delay. But I don’t think they will succeed in that.

AMY GOODMAN: This is the 30th anniversary of your famous testimony before the House of Representatives. Well, you know, it was months ago, but it was June 23rd, 1988, so 30 years in June, last June, where you said, “The greenhouse effect has been detected and is changing our climate now.” That was under Reagan and Bush.


AMY GOODMAN: You went all through the Clinton years. You went all through George Bush, George W. Bush, all through Obama, which is the bulk of your activism, during the Obama years, and now into Trump.

JAMES HANSEN: Yeah. And, of course, what’s happened, the rate of growth of emissions has actually accelerated over that time period. And the reason is very simple: As long as fossil fuels are allowed to be the cheapest energy source, then we will keep burning them. And the countries that want to raise their standard of living will use the same path that we used in the West. And, of course, these fossil fuels are not really the cheapest energy, because their price does not include their effects on human health and on climate, the air pollution, the water pollution and the climate change. So, we need—it’s a simple story, but our governments simply, actually, subsidize the use of fossil fuels, rather than making their price honest. That’s the basic problem.

AMY GOODMAN: We just had Dr. Kevin Anderson on, from Manchester in England, responding to this IPCC report, the U.N. climate report of almost a hundred climate scientists, who said we have a dozen years to mitigate climate change, or this is catastrophic. So you have that coming out on Monday. This is the time that the trial began in Minnesota. On Tuesday, you have the acquittal, and you have this storm bearing down on Florida right now. I keep going back to this because television and radio are such an important means of communication, and now the airwaves are almost completely filled with what’s happening and, you know, the necessity for people to evacuate this absolute monster storm. But I don’t know if all the meteorologists talk to each other. I doubt that’s the case, and then all the reporters beyond the meteorologists. But how would it be any different if they did all decide together that when it came to climate change, they would wear a gag, they would not mention it? It is simply astounding, the amount of time that’s spent on climate, and yet the almost complete silence on global warming, Dr. Hansen.

JAMES HANSEN: Yeah, that is really disappointing, because the connections of these—the increasing damage from these storms is, in fact, related to global warming. So, it should—there should be more effort to make that clear. Likewise, the increasing fires and the damage that we see is, in part, related to the fact that the planet is getting hotter. You know, the low latitudes, the subtropics, in the summer, are becoming so warm that it’s going to be uncomfortable to live there. And it’s going to contribute to the migration from these low latitudes. There are a lot of important connections of the climate change to major problems in the world. We need to make that clearer, because the actions that are needed to address this are not really that painful. You simply have to make the price of fossil fuels honest. But, of course, the fossil fuel industry is very powerful in our capitals, Washington and all the other capitals. And I think that has a lot to do with the fact that we’re not taking the sensible actions that we should be taking.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to end with all of you talking about the political climate. Dr. James Hansen, President Trump denying that climate change exists—in fact, he just went down to Florida before the storm, speaking with police chiefs, and did not mention even that the storm was coming, let alone climate change. But the fact that he denies the science, the fact that he denies climate change, I’d like each of you to address that in this last two minutes.

JAMES HANSEN: Well, my comment is that this is going to make our case against the federal government so much easier to prove. I don’t see how we can lose in a court where we’re allowed to present all of the facts. So I think that over the next year or two—the judicial system does move slowly, but I think that over the next year or two we will finally begin to force the government to be responsible.

AMY GOODMAN: Sort of like the Scopes trial, denying evolution, here it’s denying climate change?

JAMES HANSEN: Well, yeah. But here it’s even much more important because we’ve got to have actions. And so it’s really crucial that we get on with this case.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Annette Klapstein, you can address President Trump, or you can address the people.

ANNETTE KLAPSTEIN: Yeah. It’s terrible that Trump is a climate change denier, but I hardly think he’s the crux of the problem. The problem is that the entire political system has been hijacked by the fossil fuel industry. They basically own and control our politicians, and that’s why we get no action.

AMY GOODMAN: Emily Johnston?

EMILY JOHNSTON: Yeah, hi. I think, you know, one of the problems is that, especially in this political atmosphere, people get not only paralyzed, but also constantly distracted by things. But the truth is, you know, as we saw with the IPCC report, that we have very little time. We have to keep our eyes on the ball. And we have more power now than anybody has ever had, in a way, because if we let things continue as they’re continuing now, we know that disaster will result, and we will lose everything. And so—and yet, we still have the chance to save a great deal, and quite possibly the human species, and so we have to act as quickly as we can and paying full attention to that all the time, because that chance only lasts for a few more years, really. There’s the 12-year figure. There’s also—scientists have said we have only a year or two to start making really deep emissions cuts. So, however you look at it, we have no time to lose.

AMY GOODMAN: Kelsey Skaggs, final comment?

KELSEY SKAGGS: The fact that the president is a climate denier really makes the problem clear. And I think that we’ll see more people of conscience engaging in acts of civil disobedience around climate change and attempting to use this argument, the climate necessity defense, because necessity defendants have to show that they had no means within the legal system available to them to effect change. And I think that that is very clear with respect to climate policy in the U.S. today.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you all for being with us, Annette Klapstein and Emily Johnston, the valve turners; attorney Kelsey Skaggs, executive director of the Climate Defense Project; and Dr. James Hansen, former top climate scientist at NASA, now at the Earth Institute at Columbia University here in New York—all speaking to us from Minneapolis. Minnesota is where the valve turners were just acquitted, on the day after the U.N. climate report was released, predicting climate catastrophe if the world doesn’t take action. And we’re having this conversation as Hurricane Michael makes landfall in the Florida Panhandle.

To go to Democracy Now!'s first discussion, Part 1 of this discussion, go to I'm Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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