Putting Climate Change on Trial

Putting Climate Change on Trial

Catch Straubel fellow Kelsey Skaggs in feature film Necessity. Her Climate Defense Project helps change the status quo.

With famous necessity cases dating back to the 1500s, the Necessity Defense argument has deep roots: History is built on 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. 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.  

For decades, the fossil fuel industry has harmed our planet. We need activists and exceptional leaders to fight for climate justice. Straubel fellow Kelsey Skaggs is doing just that by putting pressure on a legal system that has failed to establish protections for a vulnerable planet. She is co-founder and executive director of the Climate Defense Project (CDP), which provides a range of legal tools to support climate activists arrested for acts of nonviolent civil disobedience. She employs the Necessity Defense: “breaking the law can be legally, as well as morally, permissible,” if the accused can prove that the crime was necessary in order to prevent a greater harm.

Kelsey’s proudest accomplishment with CDP is the support it provides to changemakers: “The activists we represent in political trials are making a difference through their courageous acts.” Kelsey tells us, “We hope to empower more people to take part in the climate movement and to develop a network of lawyers who can support those people.” She envisions a legal system that is capable and willing to respond to climate change, and she insists that the political branches of government must take action. CDP’s tenacity has already produced successes in court and will play an essential role in the effort to respond to climate change.

CDP’s work is featured in a new film, Necessity: Oil, Water, and Climate Resistance, which highlights the efforts of activists in Minnesota fighting the expansion of pipelines carrying toxic tar sands oil across North America. Using the Necessity Defense, CDP represented these activists, successfully arguing that the threat of a climate emergency justified their acts of civil disobedience. The film portrays both the vital role of civil disobedience and the crucial need to incorporate environmental considerations into our legal system. Kelsey explains, “This film is important because it documents a new area of law—one that can have a significant impact on whether and how our legal system responds to climate change.”

Kelsey’s vision is clear: “As long as lives are imperiled by misguided policies, such as those that allow climate destruction, there will be advocates who break the law to follow their conscience. History proves that strict adherence to immoral laws can be foolhardy. Laws are not perfect. They evolve over time to reflect society's changing values. Our ability to act rationally and prioritize morality in the face of these contradictions is what moves us toward a more just world.”