US Climate Change Activists Go On Trial: James Hansen Offers Support

Published on Friday, October 17, 2008 by The Guardian/UK

In Echo of Kingsnorth Six, US Climate Change Activists Go On Trial Eleven face
criminal charges after blockading $1.8bn plant • James Hansen offers to lend support
by Elana Schor

WASHINGTON – Eleven climate change activists are due in court today on criminal
charges after they blockaded a planned $1.8bn coal-fired power plant, providing an
American echo of the Kingsnorth Six trial.

The blockade lasted for about four hours and resulted in the arrest of the ten
activists who locked down and one other activist who was acting as a police liason.
Charged with unlawful assembly and obstruction of justice, the group has been dubbed
the Dominion 11 in homage to Kingsnorth. Dr James Hansen, the leading US climate
change scientist, has followed his testimony on behalf of the Kingsnorth protesters
with an offer of help to the Virginia activists. (Photo: mountainjustice.org)The
activists were arrested last month in rural Wise County, Virginia, at the gates of a
power plant being built by Dominion, the No 2 utility in the US. The 11 chained
themselves to steel barrels that held aloft a banner, lit by solar panels,
challenging the utility to provide cleaner energy for a region ravaged by abusive
coal mining.

Charged with unlawful assembly and obstruction of justice, the group has been dubbed
the Dominion 11 in homage to Kingsnorth. Dr James Hansen, the leading US climate
change scientist, has followed his testimony on behalf of the Kingsnorth protesters
with an offer of help to the Virginia activists.

The Americans have yet to attract the national attention won by their counterparts
in the UK. But for Hannah Morgan, a member of the 11, her case is only one chapter
in a long battle against the coal industry that has been raging under the general
public’s radar.

“Civil disobedience is something that can be incredibly effective, but it needs to
be part of a larger campaign,” the 20-year-old Morgan said.

In that spirit, opponents of the Wise County plant have staged more than a dozen
demonstrations since the facility was first proposed 18 months ago. During the same
week that a dozen activists protested outside Dominion headquarters, lawyers for the
Sierra Club and other groups were pleading with state air quality officials to deny
permits to the plant, which would emit 5.37m tonnes of CO2 every year.

Nine of the 11 face four misdemeanour charges at today’s hearing, each of which
carries a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a $1,000 fine, according to
Michael Abbott, the county’s deputy commonwealth attorney.

The remaining two, including Morgan, have also been charged with criminal
trespassing and encouraging unlawful assembly. Whether they plan to use climate
change to defend their protest as necessary, as the Kingsnorth Six did, remains to
be seen.

“It’s hard to say how the courts would react to an argument like that without making
it,” Morgan said. “We thought we might be setting a precedent through this legal
process, and we might be.”

If a climate-based defence is mounted, the odds are likely stacked against the
Dominion 11. None in the group currently lives full-time in Wise County, where coal
remains a way of life even as mountaintop-removal mining destroys the local
landscape.

In addition, Dominion is one of the most powerful lobbying forces in Virginia,
giving more than $1m in campaign donations on the local level since 1993. Tim Kaine,
the state’s Democratic governor, received more than $135,000.

“It tells us something about where we are in the United States, where the public
education is, the fact that special interests have succeeded in misinforming the
public,” Hansen said via e-mail.

“That only emphasizes the fact that the wrong people were on trial in this case. It
is the people on the other side of the docket who should be placed on trial.
Especially those at the top of the heap.”

No matter what the outcome of today’s hearing, the group has succeeded in raising
awareness of anti-coal activism in the US. Similar protest efforts are underway
against planned power plants in the states of Colorado and Georgia.

Chris Johnson, 31, was impressed enough by the activists to drive 90 minutes on
Virginia’s winding roads – and offer to serve as their lawyer.

“The fact that people were still willing to stick their neck out for a cause, I
respect that tremendously, so for that reason I jumped at the opportunity,” Johnson
said. “I really think their cause is a just cause.”

Another, more well-known supporter of the Dominion 11 – Al Gore – lent his voice to
their cause three weeks ago in New York City. “If you’re a young person looking at
the future of this planet and looking at what is being done right now, and not done,
I believe we have reached the stage where it is time for civil disobedience to
prevent the construction of new coal plants,” Gore told an audience at Bill
Clinton’s Global Initiative conference, earning a shower of applause.

Morgan, one of eight in the Dominion 11 under the age of 25, declined to commit to
any future civil disobedience against the Wise County plant. But she had a wry reply
ready for the vice-president and Nobel laureate.

“If anything, Gore’s behind the times, because American youth have been standing up
and taking action,” she said. “We don’t see him out on the front lines.”

© 2008 Guardian News and Media Limited

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