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NYT Profiles eco-terrorists: ‘Climate freakout people’ declare: ‘I’m Just More Afraid of Climate Change Than I Am of Prison’


How a group of five activists called the Valve Turners decided to fight global warming by doing whatever it takes.


In Oct. 11, 2016, Michael Foster and two companions rose before dawn, left their budget hotel in Grand Forks, N.D., and drove a white rental sedan toward the Canadian border, diligently minding the speed limit. The day was cold and overcast, and Foster, his diminutive frame wrapped in a down jacket, had prepared for a morning outdoors. As the driver, Sam Jessup, followed a succession of laser-straight farm roads through the sugar-beet fields, and a documentary filmmaker, Deia Schlosberg, recorded events from the back seat, Foster sat hunched in the passenger seat, mentally rehearsing his plan.

I want any grandkids, or grandnephews and nieces or whatever, anybody in any family tree of mine, to know that once upon a time people burned oil, and they put it in these underground pipes, and they burned enough, fast enough, to almost cook you guys out of existence, and we had to stop it — any way we could think of.”

Foster, who is 53, was charged with criminal trespass and criminal mischief, conspiracy to commit criminal mischief and reckless endangerment.

“Your Honor,” he said, “one of the main reasons for this action is to appear here and see justice done for our children, and to protect the air and land and water that they will require to survive. So it’s very important for me to be here in this courtroom, and I wouldn’t miss it for the world. I’m — it’s terrifying — but I am not going to miss it.”

The five men and women said little about themselves, dwelling instead on what they saw as the existential threat of climate change and the inadequacy of available legal remedies. “I’m not courageous or brave,” Johnston told the small crowd. “I’m just more afraid of climate change than I am of prison.”

The Valve Turners take climate change both very seriously and very literally. They are among those whom Ward calls the “climate freakout people” — the scant 2 to 3 percent of Americans who, when asked by Gallup to name the most important problem facing the country today, mention pollution or the environment. They can quote from the work of scientists like James Hansen, the former director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in Manhattan, who was an author of a 2008 paper concluding that in order to preserve a planet “similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted,” the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere needs to be reduced to 350 parts per million or less.