On Dec. 19, 2008, a 27-year-old man named Tim DeChristopher, troubled by American energy policy and its contribution to global warming, broke the law.
He did so by attending a federal auction in Utah, where energy developers were bidding on parcels of Utah wildland that the Bush administration had made available for oil and gas development. DeChristopher bid aggressively, driving up the price of some parcels and winning 14 of his own -- some 22,000 acres in all -- to the tune of $1.8 million. He had no means to pay.
"I understand that prison is a very horrible place," DeChristopher told me last fall, when I had a chance to sit down with him for a lengthy interview. "But I've been scared for my future for a long time. And I think the scariest thing that I see is staying on the path that we're on right now. Obedience, to me, is much scarier than going to prison."
He faced 10 years and some $750,000 in fines.
On Tuesday, the now 29-year-old DeChristopher, who was convicted in March of two felonies associated with his exploits, was sentenced to two years in prison and was promptly taken into custody. He also faces $10,000 in fines.
The judge had barred DeChristopher's defense team from explaining to the jury why he disrupted the auction -- because he saw the auction as both illegal and contributing to the "exacerbation of global warming and climate change," according to court documents.
"We're not here about why he did it," U.S. District Judge Dee Benson said at one point during the trial. "We're here about whether he did it."
DeChristopher's actions have prompted comparisons to Herny David Thoreau's refusal to pay taxes in protest of slavery, and even to Rosa Parks' refusal to be relegated to the back of the bus because she was black. And indeed, it has been a feature of many social movements, when legal avenues have been tried and exhausted -- and when it becomes clear that the system is set up to efficiently deflect and patiently defer demands for change -- that individuals and groups, dedicated to a cause, decide it's time to start peaceably breaking some rules.
For a growing number of Americans concerned about climate change -- and frustrated by the lack of action in Washington -- that time has come.
"People who understand the depth of the climate crisis have long since changed their light bulbs and their lifestyles," said Bill McKibben, an environmentalist and climate activist, "and they know that moral witness is the next step towards shifting our society on a sustainable path."
Part of bearing moral witness involves ignoring certain rules about congregating in front of the White House, and McKibben is among those leading an event next month that aims to do just that.
In this case, the group's target is the Keystone XL pipeline project -- a contentious proposal to build a pipeline from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, to the Texas Gulf Coast. Environmentalists abhor the tar sands, a gooey mix of sand and oil that requires copious amounts of water, energy -- and greenhouse gas emissions -- to produce.
James Hansen, the NASA scientist and the godfather of the modern climate movement, laid out the stakes in an essay published at Climate Story Tellers in June: "If emissions from coal are phased out over the next few decades and if unconventional fossil fuels -- including tar sands -- are left in the ground, it is conceivable to stabilize earth’s climate," Hansen wrote. "Phase out of emissions from coal is itself an enormous challenge. However, if the tar sands are thrown into the mix, it is essentially game over."
The Keystone project hinges on State Department approval, and while opponents have managed to slow down that agency's deliberations, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has said in the past that she is inclined to approve it. Pressures have also come from business lobbies like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has called for swift approval of the pipeline, and congressional Republicans, who pushed a bill through the House on Tuesday that would require the State Department to make a decision by Nov. 1.
In a clarion call dubbed Tar Sands Action, Hansen, McKibben and other environmental leaders are soliciting volunteers to descend on Washington at any point between Aug. 20 and Sept. 3. They plan to make their opposition to the pipeline known by occupying the pavement directly in front of the White House -- an area with specific rules regarding demonstrations, including an edict that protesters keep moving.
From the invitation:
[I]t’s time to stop letting corporate power make the most important decisions our planet faces. We don’t have the money to compete with those corporations, but we do have our bodies, and beginning in mid August many of us will use them. We will, each day, march on the White House, risking arrest with our trespass. We will do it in dignified fashion, demonstrating that in this case we are the conservatives, and that our foes — who would change the composition of the atmosphere -- are dangerous radicals. Come dressed as if for a business meeting — this is, in fact, serious business.
And another sartorial tip — if you wore an Obama button during the 2008 campaign, why not wear it again? We very much still want to believe in the promise of that young Senator who told us that with his election the ‘rise of the oceans would begin to slow and the planet start to heal.’ We don’t understand what combination of bureaucratic obstinacy and insider dealing has derailed those efforts, but we remember his request that his supporters continue on after the election to pressure his government for change. We’ll do what we can.
Not everyone thinks nonviolent disobedience is the answer.
Former Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson, a climate change activist himself, told The Deseret News on Monday that he thought DeChristopher's actions were useless. "I doubt his actions convinced one person who did not already agree urgent action needs to be taken to protect our climate," Anderson was quoted as saying.
And Bjorn Lomborg, the Danish political scientist and climate gadfly, perhaps best known as the author of the books “The Skeptical Environmentalist" and "Cool It," said in an email message that he also doubted the effectiveness of such forms of protest.
"Climate change has dropped down the political agenda, so I can perfectly understand why activists would turn to measures to attract more attention to it," Lomborg said. "But unfortunately, more attention is not what is actually needed to solve this problem — there has already been plenty of global attention focused on promises of carbon cuts that just haven’t happened. What is needed is a focus on smarter, more effective solutions than carbon cuts."
The solution, Lomborg added, involves increases in investment of green energy research and development, so that it eventually becomes cheaper than fossil fuels. But that is "not an easy policy to convert into activism," he said. "It’s hard, I guess, to chain yourself to an increased R&D budget."
But then, such policies are precisely what Americans of all stripes, who are fed up with political inertia in Washington, say they are hoping to nudge by risking arrest -- or even prison, in DeChristopher's case.
"I think that one of the things that critics need to remember is that civil disobedience has always played a role in social movements," said Lindsy Floyd, a program coordinator with the Environmental Humanities Education Center and an organizer with Peaceful Uprising, a group co-founded by DeChristopher after his action at the lease auction. The group's first core principle: "We refuse to be obedient to injustice."
Floyd said she was "sick of signing petitions and 'liking' things on Facebook," adding that her contributions to nonprofit groups working to preserve Utah wilderness have proved ineffectual.
"The system in place is designed to limit our effectiveness as citizens and agents of change," she said. "To critics, I ask: if not civil disobedience, then what?"
A video interview with DeChristopher, conducted last year on some of the land he won during the 2008 auction, is available at HuffPost Green.