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Creating a future through civil disobedience:  Keystone Pipeline Valve-Turners give their reasons

Adapted from the website http:://

“If people are not acting as though there is an emergency, people don’t believe that there is an emergency.” —Leonard Higgins, Oregonian and grandfather

For many of us engaging in work to avert civilizational collapse, there comes a point when it becomes clear that the one thing left for us to do is to put our bodies in the way of the machine.

Each of the tar sands Valve-Turners has had a point of personal moral reckoning, having worked on climate change from various angles for collective decades. Annette Klapstein is a retired lawyer, and knows what it means to work within the system. Ken Ward has tried to steer US environmental institutions to take climate seriously. Michael Foster has been helping kids plant millions of trees to sequester CO2, and working on the effort to sue governments for failing to protect inalienable rights. Emily Johnston has been building the grassroots movement 350 Seattle. Leonard Higgins has been opposing fossil fuel extraction and transportation infrastructure by organizing lobbying efforts, lawsuits, and civil resistance.

The political context

Those personal motivations are not the whole story: this action occurred in a political and historical context.

In the summer of 2016, it was readily apparent that decades of climate campaigning in the United States had had practically no effect. The 2015 Paris emission reduction pledges are not nearly sufficient to stave off climate cataclysm, and no current policy proposal targets the dramatic emissions reductions necessary for a stable future. Climate strategies premised on an insider political strategy and complex bureaucratic mechanisms had failed.

What’s needed to bring a strong movement to life and power requires visceral and energizing acts of conscience that embody the change we seek.

Immediate goals

[Closing the pipeline valves] was an attempt to try a different strategy. One action  won’t be sufficient to solve the climate crisis, but might it achieve something meaningful? We had two kinds of goals for this action.  The first was direct and political—and also unlikely. The second included longer term movement-building goals.

The immediate goals are obvious: could such an action have provided President Obama an opportunity to keep the tar sands valves closed? We knew this was unlikely, but such actions, with others, arguably persuaded Obama to abandon KXL. Could a serious and bold action break climate change into the media cycle and perhaps even the presidential campaign discourse? Might it be possible to have a case stemming from such an action in federal court where we could make a strong public trust argument that would be a necessity parallel to the ongoing Children’s Trust litigation? 

Movement goals

 If we are to build a powerful movement that can create the substantial change necessary, we need to experiment with ways of building energy and focus among those who care about climate. In her recent book, “Why Civil Resistance Works,” and an article in The Guardian, Erica Chenoweth describes extensive research showing that peaceful, nonviolent civil resistance is the most effective method to bring about social change. The research shows that such change requires that only 3.5 percent of the population remove their consent through civil resistance.

The intrinsic value of the act

Shutting down five tar sands pipelines is not only a symbolic act. The Valve-Turners, according to reporting by Reuters, shut down 15% of the US oil supply on October 11, 2016. Every minute of pumping tar sands towards the atmosphere is one too many. Every hour that we deny the fossil fuel industry their profits is a success.

It was no mistake that we shut down tar sands oil – the most dirty liquid fuel in the world. If we are to have a habitable planet, we must close down tar sands operations and coal production first. If we’re going to shut something down, we should start here.

We showed that it can and must be done—over and over, until the fossil fuel companies get the message that they are no longer going to profit by destroying the planet we need to live on. 

The symbolic value of the act

The value of an action is not merely in the hours that pipelines are shut down, or the financial cost to pipeline companies. It is also in the hope lifted in the hearts of the climate movement.

The more-than-literal value of the actions tells a story about the type of action, and the type of life, that is needed in these times: about the scale and sense of urgency of the crisis, and about individual and collective responsibility. The Valve-Turners decided early  that their approach would be transparent—they would tell the stories of their personal moments  of decision and accept responsibility for the actions they took, so that others might also find their way into action.

Although the Valve-Turners have diverse spiritual backgrounds and beliefs, they share a sense of moral duty to act, even when there is no certainty of stopping the harms of climate change. 

Why go to court?

The decision to take our defense to a jury trial, and attempt to use a climate necessity defense is a logical outgrowth of this approach. If we can stand without fear and explain in cogent language the catastrophe before us and the necessity to act, in front of a jury of our peers, we can help set the example of personal strength and responsibility we believe is critical to winning this fight.

If we can convince a jury of random citizens to agree that shutting off a pipeline is excusable, it will be a vindication that telling the truth about the dire situation we are in, and backing it with personal commitment, is a winning strategy. That outcome, we know, is unlikely.

But if convicted, the Valve-Turners will be a powerful example of the moral fortitude required in the face of this challenge.


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