It’s been a big week for all sorts of news, from Joan Rivers’ death to President Obama’s formal commitment to going after ISIS/ISIL. Somewhere on that scale falls a Massachusetts District Attorney’s decision to drop charges against a pair of global warming protestors because, as he explained, he agrees with them.
On May 13th, 2013, Ken Ward and Jonathan O’Hara used a lobster boat to try to physically block a coal freighter from docking. The lobster boat carried banners reading “#coalisstupid” and “350” and bore the evocative name Henry David T. The freighter, the Energy Enterprise, carried coal for the Brayton Point Power Plant, in Somerset, Massachusetts. Mr. Ward and Mr. O’Hara stated that climate change is a moral issue and they want the power plant shut down immediately. They were both arrested and charged with conspiracy, failure to avoid a collision, and other crimes. They faced up to two years in jail, plus serious fines.
This past Monday, Bristol County DA, Sam Sutter formally dropped the charge of conspiracy and settled the other charges out of court. The two men will pay $2000 in restitution each. In an interview on National Public Radio’s Here and Now yesterday, Mr. Sutter was careful to say that, all headlines to the contrary, he did not drop all charges, he dropped one of them and converted the others to civil infractions. The two are not getting away with breaking the law. He supports their cause, but does not agree with their methods. If someone else broke the law in his district for similar reasons, he might or might not do the same thing again.
Mr. Sutter did not simply take the law into his own hands and he did not act without precedent. As he explained, the Massachusetts legislature actively encourages DAs to settle cases out of court as much as possible in order to save taxpayer money. Although Mr. Sutter’s motives in this case were larger, by settling he did save the state money by avoiding a trial and the $4000 in restitution will cover what the state has already spent. He did his job.
And as a commenter on Here and Now’s website put it, it’s quite possible that the two men would have gotten off with probation alone had the case gone to trial, since no one was hurt. As crimes go, this one was pretty minimal.
What made Mr. Sutter’s actions unusual was not what he did but why he did it and the way he used the event as an opportunity to acknowledge the seriousness of global warming and the failure of most politicians to take any leadership on the subject. He openly admires Bill McKibbon, and plans to attend the march in New York in a week and a half.
Prosecutors routinely make decisions that are, in part, moral. While it is not a DAs job to decide guilt or innocence, they can and must decide which plea-deals to offer to whom and, sometimes, what types of penalties to seek. Famously, the gangster Al Capone was charged with tax evasion because prosecutors wanted to charge him with bootlegging and murder but couldn’t. He was too good at covering his tracks. Not everyone who fails to file properly gets charged, because there are only so many hours in the day and prosecutors don’t bother going after every single possible infraction. They went after Al Capone because he was a horrible person who needed to go to jail for something before more people died. Prosecutors aren’t supposed to be robots, reflexively pursuing charges without thought; for a DA to use his or her discretion is normal.
What isn’t normal is for a DA–or any politician–to treat climate change as real.
The Brayton Point Power Plant is closing in 2017. That isn’t the immediacy Ken Ward and Jonathan O’Hara called for, and the closure is not a direct result of their actions, but it still represents a victory. The power plant simply isn’t profitable anymore, in part because the New England power grid has largely replaced coal with natural gas, but also in part because of environmental regulations.
Coal produces more carbon dioxide per unit of energy than any other fuel. Coal plants are closing, and will continue to close, because of regulations that exist because people like Ken Ward, Jonathan O’Hara, and Sam Sutter make it obvious that reducing greenhouse gas emissions is important.