Being a climate activist is a noble calling. It is a way of pressuring national and business leaders to accept responsibility for preserving a livable future. Solving the climate crisis requires making rapid social and technological changes for which “there is no documented historical precedent,” as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) put it.
Climate activists have used a variety of tactics to pressure corporations and political leaders to reduce global dependence on fossil fuels, ranging from direct actions like blocking pipeline construction to lobbying politicians and sensitization. Coming together as collectives and communities has pressured policy makers and modeled alternative paths to sustainable living.
Public discourse can also make a climate activist a target for legal harassment from the fossil fuel industry.
Climate change poses an urgent and potentially irreversible threat to human societies and the planet. Fossil fuel companies have known for decades that they were deeply guilty of climate degradation and they have taken systemic measures to hide what they know. Big Oil – led by ExxonMobil – has used its money and influence to circumvent attempts by federal and state authorities to reduce the amount of carbon emissions created when oil is extracted, transported, refined and then burned.
Time and time again, a climate activist has spoken out and tried to make transparent the devastation caused by big oil companies, only to be cracked down on by the authorities. It was first about arrests for demonstrations. Today, attempts to silence those who denounce the big polluters have taken another turn.
EarthRights International has uncovered a trend in the United States and abroad to close civic space, where those who exercise their basic rights to speak out on matters of public interest face retaliation in the form of judicial harassment. and physical violence. Their investigation identified 152 cases over the past 10 years where the fossil fuel industry has used strategic public participation lawsuits (SLAPPs) and other legal harassment tactics to try to silence or punish critics. in the USA.
These types of judicial harassment are an ever-present threat to many who speak out on political and social issues. Companies and individuals file hundreds of SLAPPs each year in state and federal courts. They target community leaders, journalists, activists and ordinary citizens from all political backgrounds who speak out on a wide range of issues.
But what about the First Amendment?
“Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of a religion or prohibiting the free exercise; or restricting freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of the people to assemble peacefully and seek redress from the government for their grievances.
The First Amendment to the US Constitution represents the essence of American democracy, but the US legal system is used to stifle these guaranteed freedoms.
Judicial intimidation tactics have been used to prevent critics from organizing against oil, gas and coal extraction, including 93 strategic lawsuits against public participation and 49 “wrongful subpoenas” directed against individuals and groups.
The report, titled “Fossil Fuel Industry Use of SLAPPs and Legal Harassment in the United Statesis the first to quantify the efforts fossil fuel companies have made within the justice system to silence their critics. Here are some samples.
- 4 Colorado anti-fracking activists and a journalist who filmed their protests in 2018
- Many groups and individuals who demonstrated against the Dakota Access Pipeline
- A grassroots group that spoke out about public health concerns over a coal ash dump in Alabama
Case Study: Threats from Dakota Access Pipeline Climate Activists
In July 2016, the US government allowed a fossil fuel company, Energy Transfer Partners, to run an oil pipeline under a lake in North Dakota that provides the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe with their main source of drinking water. For months, the tribe had opposed the Dakota Access Pipeline, which threatened to contaminate their water and damage dozens of sacred sites. The government’s decision sparked outrage across the United States and turned the pipeline into a symbol of the struggle to protect Indigenous sovereignty and land rights.
Thousands of supporters have arrived in North Dakota to join protests aimed at stopping construction from moving forward. Tensions rose quickly. Energy Transfer Partners worked with federal law enforcement agencies and local police in the arrest of hundreds of people. Protesters said they were attacked by private security forces with dogs and clubs, while the pipeline company reportedly sent undercover agents to infiltrate protest camps.
In August 2017, Energy Transfer Partners sued several Greenpeace entities and others, alleging their support of the Standing Rock protests made them part of a “network of putative nonprofits and rogue eco-terrorist groups.” The company demanded $900 million in damages under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), a law created to fight the mob. The company later added several more people, including Indigenous water protectors, to the suit.
The purpose of these lawsuits was not to recover damages but to intimidate other potential protesters. Energy Transfer Partners was involved in several pipeline projects across the country that had sparked local opposition.
Company chief executive Kelcy Warren told a North Dakota news anchor, “Could we get monetary damages from this thing, and probably will? Yes of course. Is this my primary goal? Absolutely not. It’s to send a message – you can’t do that, it’s illegal and it won’t be tolerated in the United States.
Final Thoughts for Supporting a Climate Activist
EarthRights International, a nonprofit legal organization, recommends several steps that policymakers, civil society, and the private sector should take to end the use of legal harassment tactics in the United States. Their guidance note provides specific advice on how to:
- Increase public awareness of the threat.
- Provide at-risk individuals and organizations with access to legal support.
- Pass anti-gag laws for all federal and state courts.
- Hold attorneys accountable for using abusive tactics.
- End the practice of treating protesters as terrorists.
These recommendations are not only relevant to environmental and social justice activists, but to all people in the United States who wish to exercise their right to speak out on issues that matter to their communities. Even some fossil fuel heirs have teamed up with financial backing to fight fossil fuel companies. Civil society organizations across the United States are working together to end this threat, going across the aisle for bipartisan action when possible. First Amendment protection remains a critical issue for Democrats and Republicans alike.
Over the coming decades, debates about the future of energy will continue as climate change affects more communities across the United States. The report’s authors argue that people must be able to add their voice, without fear of reprisal, to the public debates that will determine the future direction of the United States and the planet.
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