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Why the ‘Necessity’ Defense Is Crucial to the Climate Struggle

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A water intake pipe for oil sands operations leads downhill to the Athabasca River on April 28th, 2015, north of Fort McMurray, Canada.

A climate activist who was convicted after turning off an oil pipeline won the right in April to argue in a new trial that his actions were justified. The Washington State Court of Appeals ruled that Ken Ward will be permitted to explain to a jury that, while he did illegally stop the flow of tar sands oil from Canada into the United States, his action was necessary to slow catastrophic climate change.

This legal argument has deep roots: History is full of situations in which breaking the law was morally justified, and a critical means of changing unjust laws. The abolition movement, the women’s suffrage movement, and the civil rights movement of the 1960s all included protests, sit-ins, and other acts of non-violent civil disobedience. Each of these movements saw activists jailed and prosecuted for challenging laws that were changed as a result. While controversial at the time, these struggles are now understood as heroic efforts that led to major milestones in human rights.

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