Who gets arrested for climate crimes?
People protesting the climate crisis are getting arrested around the world while actual alleged climate criminals walk free.
Last week, HEATED was in Detroit, Michigan for the TED Countdown Summit, which debuted dozens of new TED talks on how to accelerate climate action.
(We already published one dispatch from Al Gore’s presentation. We’ll have even more takeaways for you later this week).
One of the new talks we were most looking forward to was from Vietnamese climate activist Hoàng Thi Minh Hồng. It was supposed to be about the need for climate activism in politically hostile environments, and strategies for how to execute it safely and effectively.
But when the time came for Hong’s presentation on Tuesday, TED science curator David Biello announced she would not be able to attend. Holding back tears, Biello said Hong had been detained by local authorities in Vietnam.
Biello then played Hong’s submission video, where she spoke about the risk she and others around the world face for protesting the corporations, governments and people who profit at the expense of our planet.
In some countries, like Vietnam where I live, people are not allowed to march or protest. And in a lot of cases, climate activism may be viewed as going against the nation’s growth. So it is not easy at all, or even very dangerous, to be a climate activist in these countries—you could be jailed for it.
It was a prescient topic, and not just because of Hong’s own arrest. In recent weeks, as deadly heat and flooding has wreaked havoc across the world, more and more people have taken to the streets to protest climate inaction—and found themselves arrested and jailed because of it.
These protesters are now at the center of a maddening, often unexamined reality of the climate crisis: that around the world, governments dole out more consequences for the people who protest climate injustice than they do for the people who perpetrate it.
Imagine what the planet would look like if we treated real climate criminals this way.
Who gets jailed for climate crimes?
We can learn a lot about a society from who it chooses to jail during a planetary emergency, and who it allows to walk free.
Take, for example, some of the people who have been recently arrested for protesting environmental injustice—and compare them to the people who haven’t been arrested in one of the most egregious anti-climate corruption cases of the decade.
Not Arrested: Charles Jones, former CEO of FirstEnergy
Last month, Ohio’s former Speaker of the House Larry Householder was sentenced to 20 years in prison for accepting $61 million in bribes from the electric utility FirstEnergy in exchange for passing HB6, one of the worst anti-climate laws in the nation.
Charles Jones, FirstEnergy’s former CEO, was revealed to be the architect of the plan when lawyers for FirstEnergy said Jones and a colleague “devised and orchestrated FirstEnergy’s payments to public officials in exchange for favorable legislation and regulatory action.” Jones hasn’t been charged with any crimes.
Arrested: Bob Barigye, Mutesi Zarika, Naruwada Shamim, and Nalusiba Phionah
Four climate activists in Kampala, Uganda were arrested last week for peacefully protesting the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP). Barigye, Zarika, Shamim, and Phionah, who have now been released on bond, were charged with inciting violence.
“The arrests of these activists are a clear attempt to silence dissent and suppress opposition to the EACOP,” said Zaki Mamdoo, StopEACOP Campaign Coordinator, in a statement. EACOP is operated by TotalEnergies and the China National Offshore Oil Corporation.
Not Arrested: Michael Dowling, former FirstEnergy lobbyist
Dowling is the colleague who helped former FirstEnergy CEO Charles Jones allegedly plan the bribes. Despite being one of the main executives behind the payments to Householder, Dowling also hasn’t been charged with any crimes.
Arrested: Abigail Disney
The philanthropist and great-niece of Walt Disney was arrested on Long Island last Friday for protesting the use of private jets at East Hampton Airport. Disney was part of a climate action drawing attention to “the immense carbon emissions from private air travel.” “The last thing this planet needs is billionaires spewing greenhouse gases to get to their palatial beach homes. Just so wrong,” Disney tweeted.
Not Arrested: Ohio Governor Mike DeWine
According to court documents in the FBI’s case against Householder, FirstEnergy also paid $3 million to Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine—but DeWine has not been charged with any crimes. The sentencing memorandum for Householder said that evidence suggested that “those in power knew about Householder’s and FirstEnergy’s corruption and did nothing while it was happening.”
Arrested: Alex Cochrane, Sarah Krischer, and others
Nine people were arrested last week in a multiple-day protest against the INEOS oil refinery in Grangemouth, Scotland, according to Climate Camp Scotland. Extinction Rebellion Scotland told HEATED that Cochrane and Krischer were among those arrested; along with other protestors whose names were not publicly released. The activists were charged with disturbing the peace, among other chargers. Climate Camp Scotland, which staged the five-day climate protest camp, says INEOS is Scotland’s biggest polluter. According to the Scottish Environment and Protection Agency, INEOS’ five Grangemouth sites released around 3.2 million tonnes of CO2 in 2019.
Not Arrested: Sam Randazzo, former chairman of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO)
FirstEnergy admitted to paying Randazzo $4.3 million in bribes for HB6. Not only was Randazzo never charged, but last year he successfully appealed a judge’s order that would have allowed the Ohio attorney general’s office to seize up to $8 million in assets. But that’s a small sum in the scheme of things: over the last 10 years, FirstEnergy admitted to paying Randazzo more than $20 million in bribes.
Arrested: Hoàng Thi Minh Hồng
Hong, who founded the environmental group CHANGE, was recently arrested by the Vietnamese government on charges of tax evasion and faces up to seven years imprisonment. Hong is the fifth prominent climate activist to be arrested in Vietnam for tax evasion in the last two years. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights isn’t buying that tax evasion is the reason, though: A spokesperson put out a statement calling the arrest and trend “troubling,” and called on Vietnam to “review relevant laws to ensure their full compliance with international human rights standards.”
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What can you do?
We asked David Pomerantz, the executive director of the Energy and Policy Institute, what readers should do if they want to change the system that lets fossil fuel wrongdoers go scot-free.
He said your first and most powerful tool is voting in your local elections. Particularly if you live in Ohio, holding the state’s elected officials responsible is the first step in challenging a corrupt system. “Many of the people who were involved in FirstEnergy's corrupt scheme, or who voted for the law that it purchased, remain in office,” said Pomerantz. That includes current Ohio Congressman Mike Carey, who facilitated a $100,000 bribe to Householders’ allies in his prior role as a Murray Energy lobbyist.
But no matter where you live, you can help pass laws that prevent similar fossil fuel chicanery from happening in your state. Ask your representatives to pass reforms that make it harder for utilities to spend money on politics in secret, and specifically harder for them to spend their customers' money on politics, said Pomerantz. Namely:
A law that prohibits utilities from spending their customers' money on political advocacy
And requires utilities to disclose all aspects of their political spending, including their expenditures of their shareholder profits.
If you’d like to join an organization that’s working toward changing utility laws, Solar United Neighbors has an already-filled out form you can send to the Federal Regulatory Commission to stop utilities from using taxpayer money to lobby against solar power. The Center for Biological Diversity also has a form you can send to the Federal Trade Commission asking them to investigate utility companies fighting the renewable energy transition.
Editor's note: This story has been updated with the current number of arrested protestors from Climate Camp Scotland.
Some more news you can use:
The U.S. doesn’t have heat protections for workers. More than 110 million people, about one-third of the U.S. population, are currently under extreme heat advisories. Despite this new normal, only six states have laws protecting workers’ right to water, rest and shade. Some states are actively working against worker protections: Texas Governor Greg Abbot approved a law in June that eliminated local rules, including those protecting water breaks for construction workers. Florida legislatures also recently rejected local heat standards. In lieu of federal or state protections, labor unions are advocating for their workers—extreme heat has pushed Amazon drivers to strike for the first time ever; and UPS has tentatively agreed to install AC units in trucks after bargaining with its workers’ union (UPS will likely strike because the company hasn’t agreed to wage increases).
South Korea is overhauling its response to climate disasters. South Korea President Yoon Suk Yeol said he would improve the country’s response to extreme weather disasters after at least 40 people were killed by flooding and landslides last week. The president acknowledged that the country’s monsoon season has become more extreme because of the climate crisis. ”This kind of extreme weather event will become commonplace — we must accept climate change is happening, and deal with it," he said.
Exxon spends $4.9 billion to buy a CO2 pipeline that would give them the largest carbon dioxide pipeline network in the U.S. The purchase is part of the oil and gas giant’s push to back carbon capture and storage, but it will also provide them with around 47,000 barrels of oil a day, about 1 percent of Exxon’s production. The Houston Chronicle wrote, “If successful, the practice could reshape the energy landscape and drastically reduce emissions in industrial areas along the Gulf Coast.” But as Al Gore said at the TED summit last week, the fossil fuel industry is not sincerely trying to save the planet—because carbon capture technology is only able to capture a small amount of emissions. “They’re using it in order to gaslight us,” he said.
The European Union passes a law to restore natural ecosystems. The EU just passed their first nature restoration law, which aims to restore 20 percent of damaged land and sea ecosystems by 2030, and 30 percent by 2050. The law will help the EU meet the climate and biodiversity goals of the Paris Agreement and last year’s COP15 global biodiversity agreement, which 200 countries signed.
Catch of the day: Tobias likes heated beds, tuna, textured plastics, and is generally an environmental disaster, says reader Karina. But he helps his environmentally-conscious mommy feel okay about the world when everything feels like it’s coming to an end.
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