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“Terrorizing people into silence” while the planet burns

The Antarctic has registered a temperature of more than 20C (68F) for the first time on record, prompting fears of climate instability in the world’s greatest repository of ice. (February 12, 2020, The Guardian)

It’s like being on a bus. Up in front is the driver; the passengers are in the back. We are traveling on a highway. The bus is picking up speed and it seems like we’re heading toward a cliff. Some people shout for the driver to stop. The private security officer grabs them and locks them in the bathroom. The bus hurtles forward. The rest of us sit frozen.

A recent article in The Intercept reports on private companies profiting from suppressing protest movements nationwide. The article details how Pembina Pipeline Corporation conducts surveillance on Oregon residents who oppose the installation of a liquid natural gas (LNG) terminal in Jordan Cove. Between 2016 and 2020, Pembina paid 1.2 million dollars in salaries, benefits, and overtime to the Sheriff’s Department of Coos County. They also paid for social media archiving software, a drone, and an acoustic sound canon.

The Pembina Corporation participates in the activities of the Coos County Sheriff’s Department based on a loose interpretation of the 2005 Energy Policy Act. One provision required fossil fuel companies to come up with a cost-sharing agreement with public agencies that have responsibility for safety and security of LNG sites. The Jordan Cove LNG site hasn’t been approved — let alone built — but the sheriff’s Department formed an “intelligence sharing” group that monitors “extremists” in southern Oregon.

Environmental activists become terrorists

In April 2019, Donald Trump signed two executive orders aimed at speeding up oil and pipeline projects. One goal was to radically weaken states’ environmental review processes. As Trump put it, “Too often badly needed energy infrastructure is being held back by special-interest groups, entrenched bureaucracies, and radical activists.” Another goal was to reinforce the idea that activists who speak up about climate change are radical extremists.

In 2018, the ultra-conservative legislative activist group ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) finalized language for a “critical infrastructure protection” act. The language provided the blueprint for legislators to draft laws criminalizing acts of disobedience directed against the fossil fuel production and distribution apparatus. Language about “protecting critical infrastructure” morphed into a definition of domestic terrorism.

In January 2020, the Guardian published a story about a document obtained from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that defined “domestic terrorism” as “any act of violence that is dangerous to human life or potentially destructive of critical infrastructure or key resources.”

DHS claimed that “racial and environmentally themed ideologies” are the biggest threats facing the US today. DHS labeled the Valve Turners, the group who shut off pipelines carrying crude oil from Canadian tar sands in coordinated acts of civil disobedience, as “suspected environmental rights terrorists” and listed them as extremists along with white supremacists and mass murderers.

My son, Sam Jessup, is among those being compared by DHS to white supremacist mass murderers. He was convicted on felony conspiracy charges along with Valve Turner Michael Foster in North Dakota. In an email to the Guardian, Sam wrote that “this whole infrastructure of so-called security has done little more than secure the future of the fossil fuel industry by terrorizing people into silence.” It was Pembina lawyers who prosecuted Sam’s case.

Profitable era ends—damage already done

Ken Ward, another Valve Turner, now preparing for his third trial in WA State where he will be able to use the necessity defense, wrote, “Our government is directly complicit in this crisis. By subsidizing fossil fuels and leasing public lands to the carbon industry, the US is in large part responsible for the current state of our planet.”

Ward doesn’t hold much hope for working through regular channels: “There is next to no possibility that the immediate steps required to stave off widespread catastrophic climate change – including ending the burning of tar sands oil and coal – will be undertaken by the Trump administration, our divided Congress or by the voluntary action of the fossil fuel industry.”

Careening toward the cliff

In his state of the union address this year, Trump boasted about America’s success producing oil and natural gas, and urged the nation to follow its fossil fuel course. In Davos, he urged international leaders to ignore Greta Thunberg and other young activists, because “fear and doubt are not good thought processes.”

Amid widespread speculation that the profitability of fossil fuel companies has peaked come reports that industry leaders and US politicians knew the destructive environmental impacts of their products. According to several sources, BP, Shell, Chevron, Exxon, and Total spent nearly $200 million per year lobbying to “delay, control, or block policies to tackle climate change.”

Still, evidence of the climate crisis is becoming harder to contain. BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, announced in January that it would put climate change at the center of its investment strategies and divest from companies generating 25% or more of their profits from coal.

The anxiety of (not) speaking up

Clinicians are starting to document what they call “climate anxiety”—the fear that the current system is pushing the Earth beyond its ecological limits. At the same time, they have discovered that the only solution to climate anxiety is action.

We are all on the bus, hurtling towards the cliff. As Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in a January 2020 New Yorker article,

“Every decade is consequential in its own way, but the 2020s will be consequential in a more or less permanent way. Global CO2 emissions are now so high—in 2019, they hit a new record of forty-three billion metric tons—that ten more years of the same will be nothing short of cataclysmic.

Unless emissions are reduced, and radically, a rise of two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) will be pretty much unavoidable by 2030. This will make the demise of the world’s coral reefs, the inundation of most low-lying island nations, incessant heat waves and fires and misery for millions—perhaps billions— of people equally unavoidable.”

Reflecting on what another decade of the climate crisis will bring, Kolbert writes, “really waking up, and not just dreaming to ourselves that things will be OK, has become urgent—beyond urgent, in fact. To paraphrase Victoria’s fire authority: The world is in danger, and we need to act immediately to survive.”

Ending the right to speak—or act

Those of us who know Kolbert is right are like the people in the bus trying to stop the driver. To speak and act through historically recognized means of non-violent disobedience, risks serious prosecution. Once environmental activists are labelled as terrorists, there are no due process rights. At the same time, we must stop the bus.

Emily Lardner is part of the WIP publishing committee and writes often about the intersection of environmental issues with activism.

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