The #ShutItDown Actions Were Not Only Important But Necessary

On October 11th five activists shut off every tar sands pipeline coming into the United States, temporarily disrupting the flow of 15% of America’s oil consumption. Now they are facing maximum sentences that could mean decades in jail -- but this is only the beginning of their story.

Emily and Annette shutting down one of five tar sands pipelines coming into the US                Photo: Steve Liptay

Emily and Annette shutting down one of five tar sands pipelines coming into the US                Photo: Steve Liptay

According to the United Nations we now have only three years to aggressively reduce our carbon emissions, with far greater ambition than was shown at the COP21 in Paris, otherwise we will witness at least 3℃ warming within our lifetimes -- enough warming to trigger tipping points beyond which we lose all control of the climate crisis.

Three. Years. Even before Trump’s victory, no government on Earth had a plan to move that quickly, to act that swiftly -- and that is why, as they hope to argue in court, the #ShutItDown actions were not only important, but necessary.


A necessity defense is defined as a:

    “Defense that permits a person to act in a criminal manner when an emergency situation, not of the person’s own creation compels the person to act in a criminal manner to avoid greater harm from occurring.”

The classic example of a necessity defense involves a person who has carried out the criminal act of breaking into someone’s property because the house is on fire and people are trapped inside.

While the Northwest’s own Delta 5 came close in an emotional trial a little over a year ago, a necessity defense around climate has never been won before in the United States. Indeed, a climate necessity defense has only ever been won once anywhere, in the United Kingdom in 2008, when eight Greenpeace activists were acquitted of property destruction and criminal trespass, after successfully arguing that government inaction on climate change warranted their breaking the law to draw attention to the imminent dangers posed by coal-fired power plants.

For a successful necessity defense in the US, you need to prove several things:

  • That you faced a serious and imminent danger.

  • That you reasonably expected your illegal action to avert this serious danger.

  • That there were no legal alternatives to your criminal conduct — i.e: that the illegal act was necessary because nothing else would work.

Looking at these criteria it appears that the #ShutItDown team has an incredibly strong case for a necessity defense plea.

The danger is serious and imminent: By failing to ban the consumption of tar sands, a type of oil that is over twice as damaging to our climate as conventional crude, our laws are failing to protect the lives and well-being not only of our future generations, but of all life on Earth.

The actions could help avert the danger: Dr. Martin Luther King is but one who recognized that non-violent acts of civil disobedience, such as the #ShutItDown activists’, can be effective at instigating change. “Where the spotlight illuminated the evil,” wrote Dr. King, on the Birmingham and Selma campaigns, “a legislative remedy was soon obtained.” And that was exactly the point of the #ShutItDown actions: to put tar sands in the spotlight once more, in the hope that once in the spotlight, a legislative remedy would be applied.

The legal alternatives have failed: Each of the activists involved have worked on climate for years; suing their governments, forming numerous organizations, helping lead international NGO’s, as well as filing petitions, lobbying politicians and organizing dozens of marches and rallies; yet, despite all of these actions, here we are: three years from losing all control of the climate crisis. 

The #ShutItDown team’s case for a necessity defense could hardly be stronger.

Leonard Higgins, who worked for Oregon State's budgeting department for 31 years before turning off one of five tar sands pipelines coming into the United States.

Leonard Higgins, who worked for Oregon State's budgeting department for 31 years before turning off one of five tar sands pipelines coming into the United States.

If the judges in their cases allow them to plead necessity we may be about to witness some of the most important trials of our time: If the #ShutItDown activists were to take their necessity pleas to the courts and win -- in other words, if a United States judge were to rule that the threat posed by tar sands necessitated citizens shutting off pipelines -- well, that would change everything. The entire dialogue around tar sands would change.      

But before that, we still have a long way to go. The other huge part of the #ShutItDown saga is getting the story out there. After the Keystone XL victory people, even people within the climate movement, seem to have largely forgotten about tar sands -- and over the next twelve months, the #ShutItDown team will be seeking to change that.

They will be speaking at schools, colleges and town halls throughout the country, as well as to journalists and camera crews, telling their stories, again and again, talking about why they were moved to act, why they had to act, why they put their futures at risk to put tar sands back in the spotlight. And, of course, about why we need to shut down the tar sands now, today.

They whole #ShutItDown team will be speaking on December 12th at Sole Repair on Capitol Hill.

This may be the only time that the entire team are speaking in Seattle and I hope that you are able to make it and show these heroes the respect that they’re due.

Where: Sole Repair Shop, 1001 E Pike St, Capitol Hill, Seattle
When: Monday, December 12th, 630-900
What: The #ShutItDown Activists’ Speaking Event

Full details of the event are here. Please share them widely.

And if you’re not able to make it, but would still like to help, you can donate to their legal fund here.

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