“We like to think of ourselves as climate activists with bar licenses . . .” said Ted Hamilton, one of the co-founders of the Climate Defense Project (CDP). CDP was founded in 2016 by three HLS alumni (Alice Cherry ’16, Ted Hamilton ’16, and Kelsey Skaggs ‘16) to “use the legal system as its own avenue of activism” in climate defense work. Since its founding, the organization has represented a number of climate activists who engage in nonviolent civil disobedience to combat climate change, who would otherwise lack access to reliable legal support. CDP addresses this need by providing legal support for activists, connecting attorneys with communities and campaigns, and pursuing climate impact litigation.
Before CDP was born, the founders themselves were active participants in the climate movement. In 2014, seven students, including the three founders, filed a lawsuit against Harvard University over its fossil fuel investments. The plaintiffs claimed that Harvard was violating its charitable mission by contributing to environmentally and socially harmful activities through investing in fossil fuel companies’ business actions. The group knew their chances of success were slim, but still found it important to put political pressure on the university to take immediate action to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels. The case was dismissed by the Massachusetts Appeal Court nearly two years later, but Cherry and Hamilton said that the experience of litigating, speaking to the press, and making political arguments in the court and the court of public opinion prepared them for their current roles in running a nonprofit. From their experience pursuing litigation, Hamilton said, “We realized there was a real need for this sort of proactive movement lawyering for the climate movement . . . . and to proactively use the legal system and legal ideas to advance the movement’s goals.”
CDP primarily provides criminal defense for climate activists. Increasingly, climate activists are using civil disobedience tactics as a call to action, urging politicians and other powerful decision makers to immediately address the problems contributing the climate’s deterioration. “The planet is dying and our clients are getting arrested for trying to do something about that,” Cherry remarked. In their cases, CDP often uses the climate necessity defense, a common technique used by climate activists, which states that a person’s actions were justified by the climate emergency, or the need for drastic action to reduce the need for fossil fuels. In one such case, protestors were arrested for demonstrating against a liquid natural gas plant in Tacoma, Washington that was built on indigenous land. CDP spoke to a local indigenous elder, who served as an expert witness in the case. She gave a history of the land and the violations of treaties over the land throughout the years. Her testimony, in addition to fact that the indigenous group granted permission for the protestors to take action, helped the protestors to be cleared of the trespass and obstruction charges against them. CDP was also involved in a case in Minnesota, where the activists from Oregon and Washington, known as the “Valve Turners” manually shut off the emergency valves on the tar-sands pipelines that transports tar-sands oil from Canada to the U.S. The activists justified their actions as necessary because of the imminent threat that fossil fuels pose. Three of the five protestors were tried and convicted of felony charges, but in a win for the activists, a state judge dismissed all charges earlier this month.
These court cases, victorious or not, often helps to spread a message and adds legitimacy to the climate action movement, Cherry said. The two also discussed that political trials provide a forum and process for fact finding, adds procedural safeguards and opportunities to vet information, and can facilitate democratic deliberation on important social issues. Cherry stated, “Through jury verdicts, people get to be the voice of the community. They get to participate in a form of direct democracy at a time people are kind of shut out of other democratic institutions.”
Cherry also discussed the intersection of climate change with other issues. “You really can’t understand climate injustice without understanding racial and gender injustice, and of course, capitalism. We exploit people as well as resources.” She said that intersectionality is going to be key for the climate movement going forward to make climate change feel “immediate, tangible, and morally compelling for people.”
Both Hamilton and Cherry spoke highly of the decision to start their own organization, and encouraged students to do so also if there was a need they felt was currently unaddressed. They shared the challenges of building a nonprofit, but also how having connections both within and outside of Harvard gave them the support and resources to be successful.
Thank you to the Harvard Environmental Law Society for co-sponsoring this event.