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Courting Each Other

This week I was certified in a Spokane, Washington courtroom as an expert witness, able to offer a professional opinion as to the conduct of a man who sat down on a railroad line to block a coal train. My role was to let the court know whether, in my opinion, this elderly gentleman was acting in the American tradition of nonviolent civil resistance that is, at times, permissible by law.

George Taylor wore his clerical collar to court that day, looking the part that he plays in Spokane life, which is that of a Christian minister. This has historically lent itself to the perception of possible moral authority and, under the circumstances, Reverend Taylor certainly held it.

The Rev had done this nonviolent confrontation last August in the company of other sincere souls, all six of whom were arrested and charged with relatively minor crimes; the maximum sentences they faced were three months in jail. All indicated willingness to serve that if convicted, since coal is the largest contributor to greenhouse gasses that are driving up the temperatures of the oceans and atmosphere around the world.

Then the railroad threatened to seek unknown scores of thousands of dollars in restitution for costs they claim were incurred by the delay of all their trains by the blockades. The other five defendants were legitimately concerned–all were senior citizens and more vulnerable to the seizure of their limited funds than to serving three months of their retirement years in a jail cell.

All undertook the blockade as an act of pure altruism; none are likely to be affected by the most terrible results of global warming. They were acting in defense of their grandchildren and future generations.

The other expert witness, I confess, intimidated me at first when I read his curriculum vitae–which included sharing the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for his scientific work to document, explain, and predict the effects of climate change.

Dr. Steven Running has studied and measured aspects of our atmosphere, including carbon dioxide and other greenhouse-effect gasses, since the 1980s. He has personally published more than 300 peer-reviewed scientific papers and his expertise will be validated by any court.

He’s also an affable, humorous, genuine fellow, who, like me, appeared because we intend to help, and not for any fee or any compensation other than the sense of duty to help battle the descent to what Dr. Running described as human chaos.

If, as a society, we pull together hard, starting now, says Running, the children of the future won’t lose too much to the climate change that is underway, with an unavoidable temperature rise of perhaps two degrees Celsius this century. But, he says, if we continue business as usual, temperatures will rise upwards of 12-14 degrees Celsius and, he cites the collective judgment of his fellow scientists, human life may not go totally extinct in the next few decades, but a human society will not continue anywhere. All human systems will break. Fires, floods, hurricanes, crop death, drought, massive dislocation as virtually all port cities are lost to the seas, and killer heat.

Civil resistance, my area of expertise, is expressly to interrupt business as usual, and to do so in ways that invite others to approve, if not join in–completely nonviolent, accountable (no running), and transparent (no masks). I explained all this to the judge, was lightly challenged by the prosecutor, but it was apparent that Dr. Running’s pure fact-based analysis, derived entirely from millions of data from reliable instruments gathered for decades by dedicated and very smart scientists, impacted everyone.

Dr. Running is profoundly worried about the Trump regime, which is doing everything possible to simply ruin life, to strip the protections that might give children a chance.

So, I suppose, I may well be back in that court, or another one, but not always as an expert witness, rather as a defendant. I’d invite anyone to consider that. Business as usual cannot continue if we want to preserve hope for the young, for the unborn.

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Tom H. Hastings is core faculty in the Conflict Resolution Department at Portland State University and founding director of PeaceVoice

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