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The Necessity Defense: Climate Change and Civil Disobedience

What is the future of protest in the age of climate change? Read excerpts from our Think & Drink in Seattle featuring Delta Five activist Abby Brockway, UW oceanography professor Richard Gammon, and UW political science professor Megan Ming Francis.

In September of 2014, Abby Brockway and a group of protesters blocked an oil train in Everett for over eight hours, leading to their arrest. During their trial, the defendants used “The Necessity Defense”—the assertion that their actions, though illegal, were necessary to prevent a greater harm. Though the jury was told to ignore the assertion, the judge was moved: “Frankly, the court is convinced that the defendants are far from the problem and are part of the solution to the problem of climate change,” he said. “They are tireless advocates that we need in this society to prevent the kind of catastrophic effects that we see coming, and our politicians are ineffectually addressing.”

As climate change worsens, what role will this kind of civil disobedience play? To what degree can our laws and society be complicit in environmental degradation? Is civil disobedience the right or the only response? How are social equity and environmental justice linked?

In February, Humanities Washington hosted a Think & Drink event at Seattle’s Naked City Brewery titled “The Necessity Defense: Climate Change and Civil Disobedience.” The event featured Brockway, a member of the Delta 5 and part of the environmental activist group Rising Tide Seattle; along with Richard Gammon, professor of oceanography and chemistry at the University of Washington; and Megan Ming Francis, assistant professor in the department of Political Science at the University of Washington and the author of the award-winning book, Civil Rights and the Making of the Modern American State. The event was moderated by KUOW reporter Ashley Ahearn.

The following are excerpts from the event, edited slightly for length and clarity. For the full audio, check out KUOW’s Sound Cloud page.

Abby Brockway on her activism through civil disobedience:

“I am an unlikely activist. It seems like there is a breaking point for everyone, something that snaps where you can’t accept things anymore. The Magnolia derailing happened a mile from my daughter’s school, and I wasn’t being protected by the agencies that were created to protect people. […] Looking at our history and how things have changed, I felt like [through the Delta Five protest] I was enforcing the law. I had to ask myself, what does it mean to be a citizen? Everybody in that court room that heard the trial, and heard the experts, were convinced that the crime we committed was not as large as what is happening in this state. They wanted to acquit us, but they didn’t know if they could or not. They have that power; they just didn’t know that they had it. […] We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. What scares the powers that be is when unlikely groups work together. We can be more powerful when we connect, even when it’s uncomfortable. Disruption is the goal.”

Richard Gammon on taking a stand on climate change as a scientist:

“I began to see that my science really mattered. It mattered to people. I needed to not just publish my science in the scientific literature, but explain why it was important to people. And then beyond all the objective science, to speak with my heart as well as my head, to take a position on this. Now that’s dangerous if you’re a young scientist without tenure, or you’re a government scientist. When I worked for NOAA, I was told that I was not supposed to speak about my attitude toward this science. In the university I was much freer to speak my mind. I admire those people who have the moral courage and conviction to do that. I am willing to say, This is the science, this is what it means to people. So it was very easy for me to speak at the trial. I was asked a little bit about how I got to that point of view, but I was mainly asked to testify on the impacts of climate change on the Pacific Northwest and globally. There is nothing in our memory, in our history, in our culture, in the history of civilization, or in our genes that prepares us for the climate change that we’ve already made.”

Ashley Ahearn on media coverage of environmental civil disobedience:

“After covering proposals for coal and oil, export terminals, coal trains, and oil trains through the region, I knew it was only a matter of time before I was going to be covering a story like the Delta Five. […] Would you do jail time for the planet? The Necessity Defense basically says: Climate change is such a big problem that there was no other option; it was necessary for the Delta Five to chain themselves to train tracks to try to protest it, to change it, to fight it. We live in dangerous and very different times that some believe necessitate a specific type of action. I woke up one morning two years ago and checked my phone: a train had derailed in Interbay, in the BNSF railway. At that point we didn’t know what had happened, we didn’t know what the risk was. I rushed down there to cover it, and in my mind I was thinking This is our Deep Water Horizon moment. This is our Quebec oil train explosion moment.

Megan Ming Francis on the connection between social and environmental issues:

“One of the things I see in the environmental movement, whether it’s in this room or nationally, is a very stark difference in the color of the people who are advocating for environmental change. […] If we look at the Black Lives Matter movement, it is mostly black and a number of other minorities. If we look at the environmental movement, at least in Seattle, it is predominantly white. […] I think part of the issue is how we define what environmental concerns are, and also within that sphere, what matters? Some of the critique from black and white scholars, activists, and journalists has been, and has always been, that concerns about the environment and about race are very much intertwined. So many of these environmental issues impact people at the margins, at the bottom, and we see that in Flint. We can combine these issues of race, class, and the environment. Everybody wants to live in communities and go to schools and workplaces in which they are safe. Where they can play safely, where they can work safely—communities that are sustainable.”

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