Climate Change Jury Trial in Spokane, Washington on Hold

Spokane Judge Allows Necessity Defense; Washington State Appeals

Spokane – On March 8, Spokane District Court Judge Debra Hayes issued an order allowing for the necessity defense in a jury trial scheduled to start April 23, 2018, involving a climate change protestor’s alleged delay of oil and coal trains in September 2016.  On March 30, the Spokane County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office appealed Judge Hayes’ ruling.

In September 2016, the Reverend George Taylor joined with fellow Veterans for Peace members to block coal and oil trains from passing through Spokane. Their action followed a similar action by the local Raging Grannies.  All six protestors were charged with trespass and obstructing a train; five pled guilty for various reasons.  Rev. Taylor chose to go forward to trial, and filed a motion asking the judge to allow him to present a “necessity defense,” i.e., that he committed one harm (trespass and blocking a train) to prevent greater harms (climate change and risks of oil train derailments).

After hearings on June 26 and August 21, 2017, Judge Hayes ruled that Taylor may present the necessity defense to the jury to justify his alleged civil disobedience.  She noted, “Civil resistance is breaking a law to uphold a higher law when the threat is imminent and every legal means has not resulted in policy change.”  (Order at p. 8).

“Climate change is real, and neither government nor industry is taking appropriate action to address it.  Citizens therefore must bring their own voices and actions to bear to try to stop destruction of the planet,” said defendant Rev. George Taylor.

In this case, the necessity defense is based on two distinct environmental dangers to the Spokane area posed by transport of fossil fuels by train.

  • First, the incineration of rail-transported coal and oil will contribute to climate change, which poses existential threats to the planet and all species, as soaring temperatures cause extreme weather patterns, disrupt ecosystems, and alter and destroy basic resources necessary for human life, including water availability and agricultural production.
  • Second, rail transport of Bakken crude oil is extraordinarily dangerous as demonstrated by oil train derailments and explosions throughout North America, including at Mosier, Oregon on June 3, 2016.

Judge Hayes’ necessity order was supported by testimony of two experts: Dr. Steve Running, Professor of Global Ecology at the University of Montana and co-author of the 4th IPCC Report on Climate Change for which he shared the Nobel Peace Prize, and Prof. Tom Hastings, Assistant Professor of Conflict Resolution at Portland State University, and author of several books on civil resistance, including A New Era of Nonviolence (McFarland 2014).

Judge Hayes’ necessity order made numerous findings, including:

  • The failure to act more forcefully to abate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions will lead to harms that are severe, imminent, and irreparable, both at a global level and regionally in the Inland Northwest (Order at p.6);
  • Civil resistance can be effective in bringing about social change; historic victories such as de-segregation and women’s suffrage have resulted from civil resistance and the same result could be accomplished for environmental protections, resulting in institutional, corporate and public policy changes (Order at p. 7); and
  • When all other legal means have been taken, and those attempts have not resulted in change, the judicial branch is the last, best hope. (Order at p. 8).

“The judge nailed the problem:  climate change is already causing adverse harms to the Inland Northwest ecosystems, which will in turn hurt people.  And these harms will worsen. She found that it is reasonable to allow a jury to decide whether these harms outweigh George Taylor’s resistance actions for which he has been charged criminally,” said Rachael Paschal Osborn, Taylor’s attorney.

2016 saw the hottest global temperatures ever recorded; 2017, the second hottest year. The 400 parts per million of CO2 barrier has been exceeded – a key indicator of climate change – and the global average temperature continues to climb toward the two-degree Celsius threshold, a level that the international community has agreed should not be breached.  This rise is expected to unleash even more erratic and devastating climate events such as the extreme wildfires experienced in the West and the devastating hurricanes that hit Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico.  In the U.S., we have long known that climate change is occurring but have failed to take action.  Thirty years ago The New York Times reported that Climate Change Has Begun, Expert Tells Senate, but efforts to head off catastrophe have been continually delayed and thwarted by the fossil fuel industry.

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