In our trial for disorderly conduct that took place on November 12 – the last scheduled day of the COP 26 global climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland – Judge Kerry Taylor allowed the 11 pro se (acting without a lawyer) defendants to submit testimony about the climate crisis and the role of banks in funding it.
We pursued a “choice of evils” strategy, which under Delaware law allows someone to break the law to prevent a greater “imminent” harm. The prosecutor, who was the arresting officer, kept asking defendants who took the witness stand how their blocking the road prevented “imminent” harm that would justify the inconvenience to motorists who were delayed for a short time. Defendants testified to the drastic “imminent” harms already occurring due to climate change, like the fact that on the day of the protest, temperatures reached 108 degrees in the Northwest, part of a multi-day heat wave that killed 600 humans and a billion sea creatures.
We submitted copies of the 50-page Summary of the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report, published in August, which confirms that it is indisputable that human influence has caused all the warming in the climate system that has occurred since pre-industrial times. We also submitted copies of the 2021 Banking on Climate Chaos report, which shows that JP Morgan Chase is by far the biggest funder of fossil fuel projects around the world. Finally, we submitted a document in which the conservative and historically pro-fossil fuels International Energy Agency (IEA) declared that in order to avoid climate tipping points, funding for and construction of any new fossil fuel projects must cease this year.
Getting this documentation into the record was historic, as judges almost never allow a choice of evils defense – also known as a necessity defense. It was part of our carefully crafted four-prong strategy: presenting the science; presenting an expert witness who talked about the health impacts of the climate crisis; presenting documentation about the role of banks and Chase Bank in particular in funding the crisis; and presenting another expert witness who testified about the success of taking nonviolent direct action in winning climate concessions from a different bank.
However, although the judge allowed defendants to testify on these matters, and although in rendering her verdict she praised our clear and respectful presentation of evidence, in the end she chose the narrow definition of ‘imminent harm’ and found us guilty of disorderly conduct and imposed the minimum fine of $25 plus $72 in court costs on each of us. One of us, who lives in Baltimore, said he’d rather do community service in Wilmington than pay the fine.
Defendant Steve Norris, one of the main organizers of the action and my friend for almost 50 years, said, “Judge Kerry Taylor today at the last-minute stole defeat from the jaws of victory. She admitted into evidence the IPCC Report, Banking on Climate Chaos and the IEA Report. But then judge Taylor turned her back on us and seemed to claim that the drivers we inconvenienced in front of Chase Bank suffered greater harm than the millions of people who are suffering from climate change.”
Taking nonviolent action that involves potential risk is one thing people can do – and are doing more and more – to draw attention to the climate emergency and to demand action from our government and business leaders commensurate with the crisis. I was arrested in May at the Line 3 fight in Minnesota against a filthy tar sands oil pipeline – just like the Keystone XL pipeline President Biden cancelled on his first day in office – crossing indigenous territory. I was arrested in October in Washington, D.C. outside the White House as part of the People vs Fossil Fuels week of action preceding the climate summit in Glasgow, demanding that the president use executive action to stop or delay every fossil fuel project he can.
It is not the only kind of action we need. We need scientists doing research in academia; we need reporters covering the issue from all perspectives, especially that of those suffering first and worst from the crisis. We need people doing the day-to-day work of installing solar panels and wind turbines, and making all of our buildings energy-efficient. We need people willing to do the work of pushing legislation to make our world more sustainable. We need everyone to vote to put candidates in office willing to listen and pass those bills.
This is not a hierarchy, and I wouldn’t claim that what I do is the most important. But neither, I believe, can we get where we need to go without people being willing to take risks and get out of our comfort zones. Besides, it is where you’ll meet the best people, and I feel blessed to be part of our beloved community.