Rosemary Penwarden, Dunedin
Rosemary Penwarden in her garden at Waitati near Dunedin in New Zealand. Photo credit: BMahalski / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

A climate activist in New Zealand was convicted of “making a forged document” after sending a prank email. Her case illustrates the hypocrisy in the system that protects polluters and punishes those fighting for a cleaner world.

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At first glance, the trial of Rosemary Penwarden, 64, seems like a fairly straightforward matter. A jury in New Zealand had to determine whether she committed a crime when sending an email to the participants of an oil industry conference and telling them the event had been postponed.

The facts are not in dispute. Penwarden has admitted to composing a satirical email that informed speakers at a 2019 Petroleum Exploration and Production Association of New Zealand conference that environmental activists had discovered the location of the event, which had been kept secret, and that the event was therefore moved back.

“Our social licence is slipping away faster than anticipated,” she wrote. “Furthermore, despite our best efforts at secrecy, activists have discovered this year’s conference and were yet again planning noise and disruption. But there is a silver lining to all of this: we will not be there to listen to that incessant chanting.”

In the end, the jury determined that this was indeed a crime and found the climate activist guilty of one count each of “making a forged document” and “using a forged document.” Penwarden will be sentenced in September and faces up to 10 years in prison.

If you look a little bit deeper, though, the case is about more than the “crime” of sending a satirical letter, and it raises some interesting questions.

If it is a crime to misrepresent who you are and then tell a lie, then shouldn’t the oil industry be on trial for setting up shell groups that spread disinformation and sowed doubt about climate change for years?

Yes, the emails sent by people working for these groups may have been “legitimate,” but they were fake organizations to begin with, so isn’t every document they produce a forgery in a sense?

If what Penwarden did is wrong, then this is much worse, so who is getting threatened with long jail sentences in these cases?

Oil executives have known for decades that global warming is coming and that their products are responsible. Isn’t it a more serious crime to tell a much more consequential lie than to send an email telling participants of an oil industry conference that they should stay home?

Isn’t every document in which oil company executives deny the effects of climate change, while they privately admit that they are real, a forgery of some sort?

And it’s not just that her “crime” seems so insignificant compared to those the oil and gas industry has been committing for decades, but also that the response was totally disproportionate.

Almost a year after she sent her hoax email, Penwarden received a visit. Three cops showed up at her home and seized her cellphone and laptop.

“After sending the letter in 2019, Penwarden had her house searched and her possessions confiscated by police, she faced serious charges and had her life disrupted for over three years by an industry trying to crack down on climate protesters,” said Greenpeace program director Niamh O’Flynn. “Aside from the injustice of that, the whole thing was a huge waste of resources, and it’s hard to escape the obvious conclusion that it is an oil industry strategy to crack down on peaceful protest to take the heat off their dying industry.”

If Penwarden’s email warranted so much attention, then why aren’t entire squads of police officers showing up at the headquarters of oil and gas companies to take their computers and phones?

Every time the world gets a glimpse of what the executives and researchers of the companies discuss behind closed doors, it becomes clear that they are deliberately steering the world into a climate catastrophe to make a buck.

So, just maybe, we should focus on them and not old ladies trying to make the world a better place for their grandchildren.


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