By REILLY CAPPS
SALT LAKE CITY — They want to drag Global Warming in front of a jury. Environmentalists want Global Warming in shackles, hangdog, beaten, with lawyers flipping through horrific pics of hurricanes slapping at South Asian shanties saying: “See?! He’s a menace to society and he needs to be put away!” They want to charge Global Warming with crimes against humanity.
That has never happened, and it seemed like a receding goal after a federal judge dented – but didn’t completely smash – one man’s hopes of putting Global Warming on trial … and also nicked that man’s hopes of keeping himself out of the big house.
In a hearing at the federal courthouse here, Judge Dee Benson heard arguments about whether Tim DeChristopher could put on a “choice of evils” defense, a legal maneuver usually reserved for Lifetime movies of the week. We’ve written about all this before.
Why is DeChristopher, a soft-spoken economics student at the University of Utah, in this mess? Because, in the waning days of the Bush Administration, he waltzed into an oil and gas lease auction and bought up $1.7 million worth of drilling rights. His sabotage delayed the auction long enough for Obama to get into office and revoke most of the parcels DeChristopher bought. Which, in the minds of DeChristopher’s supporters, saved the land and reduced Global Warming (a little tiny itty bitty bit), and so his misdeed was justified, they contend – like busting out of a burning prison, or shattering a window to rescue a baby locked in a car on a sunny day.
The government lawyer called bull-ony, as John Huber tried to block the “choice of evils” defense, along with any talk of science.
“Even if they can call experts, from Al Gore to Einstein, to say whatever they want to say,” Huber told the judge, “they have to show there was a real and imminent danger.” I wondered how they planned to get Einstein to answer a subpoena. But climate change, Huber said, is happening on “geologic time.” It’s not like a bus barreling down on you, in other words. It’s more like the way California is sinking into the ocean.
The judge said he was inclined not to let the “choice of evils” defense in, or “open this courtroom to a lengthy hearing on global warming.” How far do you go? he asked. Would it be OK for someone to stop a moving car – one that’s belching out CO2 – and destroy it? Think of the mayhem that opens up. The judge seemed to want to deal only with the facts of that day, but he gave DeChristopher’s lawyers 30 days to make a written case for the “choice of evils” defense.
It was a hearing filled with big ideas and big rhetoric – the judge and DeChristopher’s lawyer even sparred on the meaning of the 1803 case Marbury v. Madison – but it seemed like the judge wanted to send the case down a path toward a run-of-the-mill fraud prosecution, which would be a serious downer for:
A) Anybody who likes a good circus trial.
B) This 27-year-old kid who could get 10 years in the joint.
C) Anyone who wants Global Warming acknowledged as a fact by a court of law.
See, Global Warming is this amorphous thing. Global Warming can’t put a tie on and sit on the stand.
DeChristopher can. (He seems to have only one suit, but he wears it well.) And he’s willing to do it. The government’s lawyers say he’s just doing this for attention, and they’re partly right. Cameras crowded around him outside the courthouse, reporters scribbled furiously. He wants to draw attention to climate change, whatever way he can.
If Global Warming did show up to court, what would he look like? A big gas ball shooting flames out of one hand and rain out the other? A phantom drowning Bangladeshi goats who can only be slowed by hippies and yuppies firing low-flow toilets and Sigg water bottles at him?
If he gets his way, Global Warming could battle a masked DeChristopher – devouring IPCC reports the way Popeye ate spinach, flinging legal briefs and economic algorithms like Mr. Freeze shot ice. (Is this over the top? Nah. It was a day of hyperbole. DeChristopher is just a college kid, and yet his fast-talking lawyer compared him to Rosa Parks and Saint Francis of Assisi, and so painting him as a Batman character doesn’t seem a stretch.)
Of course, the real world is not a comic book. Global Warming, said one of DeChristopher’s lawyers, Patrick Shea, is made up of calculus equations and detailed observations. It’s not a simple thing. So Shea wants to show a jury a DVD of ice floes breaking up, to get them to concede that Global Warming is a threat. If they can get Global Warming into a courtroom as a fact to be discussed, he confirmed to me, they might be able to get that fact used in other, bigger, more important cases, and build a legal basis for people to combat climate change.
But will they get Global Warming into cuffs?
Said the judge: “I wouldn’t hold out a lot of hope.”
– Reilly Capps is a writer who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.