Tim DeChristopher: Sacrifice for the Climate

It’s a blessing to risk it all to stop climate change—even if it means jail time.
Tim DeChristopher

Tim DeChristopher reacts to his supporters upon his exit from the court house after the first day of his trial, 28 Feb 2011. Photo by Ed Kosmicki.


There’s an idea—permeating nearly all that we say and do about climate change—that people aren’t willing to take real action to slow the warming of our planet, because it’s asking too much: too much inconvenience, too much sacrifice, too much planning ahead.

Tim DeChristopher has come to believe the opposite: We need to ask more of ourselves, and of each other.

That conviction has motivated much of DeChristopher’s activism, including his now famous decision, in December 2008, to attempt to stop the Bush administration’s fire sale of oil and gas development leases by posing as a bidder. He knew his actions might well land him in prison, but felt it was worth the risk. Though that action was unplanned (he was mistaken for a bidder and played along), DeChristopher says he had gradually been “building up the general commitment to take this level of risk, to be ready when the time came.”

At the time of the auction, DeChristopher was a student of economics at the University of Utah. He’d returned to school after more than five years working with teenagers—essentially wilderness therapy for “troubled” youth that most of society wasn’t sure how to deal with. He gradually realized that the teens had good reason for their anger and apathy. They understood how dysfunctional their world already was and how difficult their future would become, and they didn’t know what to do about it. “I started to feel like I was helping perfectly healthy kids adjust to a broken world,” DeChristopher explained.

The experience led to his decision to study economics—to interrogate the beliefs by which we set our societal priorities, to find out why the world felt so “broken.” At one point, he was posed an exam question about the very auction he would later disrupt: With only the oil and gas industry bidding on the parcels, would the price reflect the true cost of extracting the fuel? On the exam, he explained the environmental costs that would be ignored; later, when handed his bidder’s paddle, he at first tried simply to drive up the prices of parcels. Only after accidentally winning one did he decide to try to win others outright.

Nearly three years later, DeChristopher is serving a two-year term at a federal prison in California (he was convicted of making a false statement and violating the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act). When he gets out, he has every intention of continuing to push himself—and the climate movement—to make bigger demands and take bigger risks. “Given the destruction of our democratic institutions that once gave citizens access to power, my future will likely involve civil disobedience,” he told the court during his sentencing hearing. “Nothing that happens here today will change that.”

DeChristopher says his decision to take big risks feels deeply right: It’s a relief to stop pretending that everything is fine.

DeChristopher has often expressed frustration with what he has called the “spineless strategies” and “sell-out compromises” of mainstream environmental organizations. He believes that thinking too small—focusing on minor regulations or incremental changes—can be a self-defeating proposition: Not only are you underestimating your own power, you’re trading away your ability to increase it and inspire others to join you. In the face of the profound moral and existential crisis that is climate change, he argues, the best way to mobilize people is with work more worthy of their passion and the immensity of their mission.

DeChristopher believes that failing to respond to such a profound threat isn’t just dangerous for environmental reasons, but also for psychological ones: The result, as he’s seen, is too often anger, frustration, apathy, or despair. In contrast, DeChristopher says his decision to take big risks feels deeply right: It’s a relief to stop pretending that everything is fine. It feels healthier to turn fear and anxiety into action than to ignore them.

Through DeChristopher’s example, many others have found that difficulty can sometimes be easier to face than inaction. A few months before going to prison, DeChristopher spoke to 10,000 young climate activists at PowerShift. He excoriated “the cowardice of the environmental movement” and asked his audience why they were attending a conference when they could be out trying to close coal plants. He warned them that stopping climate injustice would be impossible without genuine sacrifice—of their school and career plans, of their comfort and convenience, of their clean records.

The crowd cheered.

Later in the summer, just weeks after DeChristopher began his prison term, some of those same activists were arrested in a protest that author Bill McKibben led outside the White House, trying to stop the construction of a pipeline that would carry oil from Canada’s tar sands across the Great Plains. And a few weeks after that, America’s major cities began to fill with ordinary people sleeping in parks and facing down police in defense of economic justice. Many of them were energized, not put off, to be making genuine sacrifices on behalf of their beliefs. From prison, DeChristopher congratulated them for not being afraid to express what they were feeling—and encouraged the climate movement to follow their lead.