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Climate change has its day in Duluth courtroom

Duluth police talk with Wells Fargo bank employees last January during a protest at the bank. Scott Bol (center) had locked himself to the security gate with a bicycle lock around his neck, preventing the bank from opening. Bol is one of three defendants who said in court that their actions were justified to defend the environment. (file / News Tribune)

The topic of climate change wound its way into District Court in Duluth last month, and now a judicial referee is deciding whether or not a trio of protesters was justified in shutting down a local bank earlier this year in the name of environmental defense.

Scot Bol, Ernesto Burbank and Michael Niemi had their case argued before Referee John Schulte in October.

Written closing arguments were filed earlier this month by J.T. Haines and Jennifer McEwen, lawyers for the defendants, and assistant city attorney Mary Asmus.

Bol and Niemi, both of Duluth, and Burbank, of Tucson, Ariz., were arrested last January after locking themselves to the Wells Fargo security gate in downtown Duluth. Their protest kept the bank from opening for several hours as the gate was unable to be raised. The men were initially charged with a series of misdemeanors each, but charges had been reduced to single counts of petty misdemeanor trespassing prior to October's bench trial. If convicted, the defendants face fines of up to $300 apiece. Petty misdemeanors carry no prospect for jail time.

"A lot of people are rightly concerned about climate change, and also struggling with what to do about it," Haines told the News Tribune on Friday. "It's worth thinking about what these people did and why."

Haines anticipated a ruling any time between now and mid-December.

Most notably, Bol, 67, used a U-shaped bike lock around his neck on Jan. 12 to secure himself to the gate at the Wells Fargo customer entrance. Bol and the others referred to themselves as water protectors, and called for Wells Fargo to divest itself from fossil fuels and Enbridge Energy, in particular. Enbridge is on target to build a new Line 3 oil pipeline replacement through Minnesota.

In her closing argument, Asmus said the defendants ignored legal alternatives and that the court cannot recognize Wells Fargo's legal investments as harmful. Further, she made the point the protesters' actions were too far removed from their intended outcome.

"The defendants may have prevented the bank from opening on schedule that morning," Asmus wrote, "but they did not prevent climate change."

The case is unique in that the defendants are employing the necessity defense — arguing that their illegal actions were less harmful than following the law.

Bol and the others testified in front of Schulte in October, saying they'd exhausted legal avenues that would have resulted in climate change being addressed more lawfully.

"I've done all sorts of the traditional routes," Bol testified in court, citing activism and taking part in election politics. "I think I'm more active in the traditional vein than most folks are, and yet it's not stopping business as usual."

Burbank said he chose civil disobedience for the safety of children and the environment.

"We've forgotten to acknowledge the things that give us life," testified Burbank, 37 and member of the Navajo tribe. "And companies such as Wells Fargo continue to fund companies such as Enbridge, which keeps destroying our lives by global warming and by destroying our territories and destroying our food sources and our way of life."

A University of Minnesota Duluth professor testified on behalf of the defense. Christina Gallup, associate professor of earth and environmental science with a specialty in climate change, told the court about present harms and future impacts of climate change, including an example of the state's boreal forests retreating north to Canada and being replaced by bushes and scrub. She also referenced dire warnings in a recent report by the United Nations, telling Schulte, "This is scientific yelling and screaming."

Niemi, 65, testified that he'd seen the tar sands in Alberta, Canada, where the old and new Line 3 originate. He called the area devoid of forest, and "a place as close to an alien planet as I have seen."

In her closing argument, Asmus said the defendants made it clear during testimony that their intent was to draw attention to climate change and create negative publicity designed to impact Wells Fargo's willingness to lend money to the fossil fuel industry.

The defendants' actions, Asmus concluded, were "too removed from the ongoing issue of climate change to allow them to successfully establish the defense of necessity."