On the night of the 2016 presidential election, Jessica Reznicek, a Catholic Worker and water defender, began her “peaceful direct action campaign” against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Along with activist Ruby Montoya, they burned five pieces of heavy machinery in Buena Vista County, Iowa. From there, armed with an oxy-acetylene cutting torch, Reznicek went on to other pipeline construction sites and pierced through the empty steel valves, sabotaged electrical units, and burned other heavy equipment. In a 2017 statement, Reznicek wrote, “We acted for our children and the world that they are inheriting is unfit.”
Following her actions, Reznicek was arrested. She pled guilty to one count of “conspiracy to damage an energy facility,” but in the months following her court date, prosecutors persuaded the judge to add additional charges labeling her a “domestic terrorist.” Despite the fact that she did not harm a person and explicitly took action against a corporation and not the government, these new charges drastically increased her sentence. She was sentenced to eight years in prison with three months probation; she also must pay over $3 million in restitution to Energy Transfer, the company that controls the Dakota Access Pipeline. Reznicek has never plead guilty to the terrorism charge.
August 11 marked two years since Reznicek’s incarceration, but the scandal of it all remains fresh. The U.S. would rather incarcerate someone trying to slow down the death march toward extinction than apply new legislative standards that would reduce emissions, mitigate mounting temperatures, and protect creation.
Labeling Reznicek a domestic terrorist creates a dangerous precedent for future movements attempting to protect the environment from corporate degradation. Reznicek found the courage for her direct action from her spirituality and faith. Christians should tap into that same courage and demand that our government free Reznicek and prioritize people, not the corporations currently destroying our planet for profit.
While I’m not recommending anyone sabotage an oil pipeline, I think it’s clear that we cannot count on the goodwill of corporations or our government to address the issue of climate change. Corporations, motivated by maximizing profits, simply lack the compassion to act in the best interest of the planet and people. Similarly, the U.S. government is considerably beholden to the interests of fossil fuel companies and has not yet provided an adequate mitigation strategy that will fundamentally make a difference in addressing the rising global average temperature. It’s up to the diffuse network of political and social movements to pressure the powers and principalities of the world to do what is right.
This is exactly why people like Reznicek are so important: Her actions were not only strategic, insofar as they literally slowed down the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, but her actions also drew attention to the issue of defending the water and land from the destruction that the Dakota Access Pipeline was causing.
Reznicek’s concerns about the future have been vindicated. With a new climate catastrophe every week, it is completely correct to say that the world our children are inheriting is unfit. This is not just a piece of rhetoric or romanticism about nature but a demonstrable fact as the global average temperature continues to rise, resulting in devastation. We’ve seen out-of-control fires in Maui, Canada, and the United States’ Northeast and Pacific Northwest regions. Not to mention the unprecedented hot surface temperatures of coastal waters and the intense heat dome currently covering the United States’ Midwest region. A warming planet is not some far-off proposition — it’s a reality.
With the right steps, some future warming could be averted. But it would require the governments of the world, especially the U.S. government, to double their efforts and reign in destructive corporations. And it is unlikely that this change would happen without significant activist pressure, like that of Reznicek.
For Christians who find Reznicek’s activism to be “too radical” or “out of line with Christian teaching,” it’s important to understand that Reznicek places herself in the long tradition of civil disobedience embodied by the Catholic Worker movement. Her direct action aligns with people like Daniel and Phillip Berrigan, Catholic priests who burned draft cards to protest the Vietnam War.
Reznicek, like the Berrigans, put her body on the line to draw attention to the reality of the situation: The planet is warming and big corporations like Energy Transfer are responsible. As Alleen Brown reported for The Intercept back in 2018, “The Dakota Access pipeline leaked at least five times in 2017.” These leaks all occurred within the first six months of its operation. By continuing to use and produce fossil fuels, we are hurting both our local and global environments.
For example, on Aug. 8, the deadliest wildfires of the 21st century swept across Lahaina on the island of Maui, Hawaii. With winds gusting up to 81 miles per hour, the fire spread at a mile every minute, consuming everything in its path. The wildfire burned right up to the shoreline, scattering toxic materials and debris into the water. Not even the coral was safe from the fires.
What do the Dakota Access Pipeline and Maui wildfires have to do with each other? The oil passed through the pipeline contributes directly to increased carbon emissions, exacerbating and worsening the drought and winds, which caused the fires in Maui to burn out of control.
Maui is no stranger to wildfires, but the intensity and destruction of these fires were not some causeless natural disaster or “an act of God,” but directly correlated to the continued production and use of fossil fuels.
It’s unclear exactly what sparked the fires in Maui. But what is clear is that the prolonged drought and strong winds from Hurricane Dora amplified the wildfire, making it an absolute disaster. Yet, it would be a misstep to leave the chain of causality there. Droughts and storm intensity are both amplified by a rising global average temperature. Higher temperatures mean that water evaporates quicker, ramping up the intensity of droughts. Similarly, higher temperatures also mean more intense storms. The increased evaporation of water means more intense rainfall and storm surges.
Rounding out the chain of causality, wildfires in Maui as well as droughts and storms all stem from a rising global temperature created, in large part, by companies like Energy Transfer. The oil passing through the Dakota Access Pipeline contributes to more carbon emissions and a rising global average temperature. The most recent assessment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change demonstrates that limiting the rising global average temperature will require significant reductions in carbon dioxide emissions, of which fossil fuels play a huge role.
It’s clear that in the case of Jessica Reznicek, things are upside down. A person trying to protect the environment from continued degradation and exploitation was arrested and incarcerated, while fossil fuel companies continue to tap new sources of production and make record-breaking profits. It’s nothing short of climate denial to allow carbon emitters to continue their operations. More Christians should recognize what Reznicek so perfectly articulated: The world is unfit, and we must act now.