Amid a growing state-level crackdown on civil disobedience, climate activist Ken Ward appeared at the Skagit County Superior Courthouse in Washington state on Monday resolute in the face of a potential 30-year sentence because, he says, Americans now have no option but to take radical action to defend our planet.
Ward is one of five activists facing trial for taking part in a coordinated direct action last October, which shut down all the Canada-U.S. tar sands pipelines in solidarity with the Dakota Access Pipeline resistance. Ward was arrested for closing a safety valve on Kinder-Morgan's TransMountain Pipeline in Anacortes, Washington, along with documentarians Lindsay Grizzel and Carl David.
As the first "valve turner," as they call themselves, to appear in court, Ward's trial has "far-reaching implications for the widening pipeline protest movement and the intensifying crackdown against it," according to the Climate Disobedience Center, which is among the organizations that is arguing on the activists' behalf.
The groups, which also include the Climate Defense Project and the Civil Liberties Defense Center, had prepared a necessity defense for the trial, which argues that an action was done in the public interest, on behalf of the planet.
Ward had claimed a similar defense after he and another activist in 2013 were charged with conspiracy and disturbing the peace for blocking a coal freighter with a lobster boat. In that landmark case, the Massachusetts district attorney dropped the charges after agreeing with the activists.
But, in this case, the judge "has barred Ward's lawyers from formally mounting a 'necessity' defense or arguing that his actions were justified in light of a looming environmental crisis," according to Reuters. "Ward, however, said he would try to make that case from the witness stand."
The political climate is also significantly altered. Ward's previous success came before U.S. President Donald Trump rose to power, emboldening Republicans lawmakers from coast-to-coast to push legislation that would criminalize protest. What's more, the new U.S. president has made clear that he does not believe in the climate crisis and, alternately, has taken steps to abolish environmental regulations and pull the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement.
In an extensive profile of Ward published earlier this month, the Willamette Week reported:
In this case, Ward will argue that the government's actions are an attack on the planet, and he was acting in the earth's defense.
"The political system—which would be the legal way of taking action to avoid climate change—has proven itself to be unwilling or incapable of doing that," [University of Oregon law professor Margie] Paris explains.
So for a protester to say the government forced him to break the law? "It's a fascinating defense," she says.
It could be a legal strategy that becomes more commonly used by activists. John Foran, a University of California, Santa Barbara sociology professor who studies social movements, says he believes direct actions like Ward's, especially concerning climate change, will become more common under a Trump administration.
"[Trump is] going to do so many things that are almost surrealistically crazy," Foran says, "and sort of leading us over a precipice on climate, that that's going to speed up the coming to consciousness of lots of people. That's good."
"I feel like it is my boy's life, his future, that is at stake here," Ward, who was appointed deputy director of Greenpeace USA in 1997, told WW. "It was important that I be able to tell him that, whatever the outcome, I tried everything I could think of to do. I want to be able to say that to him."
During a YouTube forum earlier this month, Ward argued that even the millions-strong protests that took place the day after Trump's inauguration would not be enough to move the current administration; that only real radical action would do.
"If our major response to the Trump administration, which is in effect a fossil-fuel administration, is to put some people out with placards, I think Trump will laugh at that," Ward said. "We need to be doing things that fundamentally strike at the heart of what's killing us."
"I spent 30-some-odd years following only legal approaches," he later said. "It's only been in recent years that the scale of the problem and lack of a political solution leaves no choice but direct action."
Encouraging others to follow his lead, Ward told WW: "The world is ending...Act freaked out."
Fellow valve turner Emily Johnston, who herself faces up to 21 years in prison and a $41,000 fine for shutting down Enbridge Line 4 in Minnesota, is live tweeting trial updates while others are sharing information with the hashtags #valveturners or #climatetrial. As jury selection began Monday, the judge estimated that the trial would last three to four days.