Climate Criminals

This fictional short story is part of High Country News’ Speculative Journalism Issue, where stories from a West under climate stress in 2068 are imagined and reported. All illustrations by Weshoyot Alvitre for High Country News.

They arrived in July of 2062, the time of year when the salmon memorials begin. The two E-series Black Hawks hugged the fire-scarred spruce of the Chugach National Forest, pounding into a parched blueberry field. Two dozen paramilitary police, members of the Old Bears, grabbed their gear, leaped from the choppers and disappeared into the treeline. It would be their final mission.

The Old Bears, an internationally funded joint task force developed to hunt down and arrest fugitive climate criminals, were led by Lieutenant Colonel Aoife Viejo. They hiked through the rawboned lowland forests for nearly two hours toward Katalla, a remote smuggling hub controlled by the United Provinces of Alaska Militia (UPAM). Their target was 84-year-old Stephen Brower, a former physician and Republican senator from Massachusetts who would later be convicted of crimes against the environment, specifically for “denying and downplaying life-threatening climate change impacts for personal gain.” Intelligence sources said Brower had been living near Katalla for more than a year with his wife, his daughter, her husband, their twins, two armed guards and a courier who came and went regularly.

“The plan was Gabe LaBatte (reconnaissance) would secure the area, while (Judicial Officer) Katrina Winogrand served papers, and Jake Cross (intelligence) and I covered Winogrand, in case anything went sideways,” said Aoife Viejo. The goal, as usual, was to capture the climate criminal and his collaborators peacefully so they could stand trial at The Hague or Fort Sill. But as the Old Bears made their way along the Katalla Slough that morning, through blackened bogs, drying streams and patches of withered prickly rose, their movements were captured by trail cams, alerting militia rebels in the area. “That’s when the trouble started,” recalled Viejo.

The team emerged from the treeline on the east side of a makeshift airstrip a kilometer from Katalla. Five commandos — Viejo, LaBatte, Cross and two relatively new recruits, Tina Cannon and Roberto Lowry — ran south along the edge of the woods, then west across the airstrip toward a collapsed wooden barn. The remaining commandos fanned out across the perimeter of the strip. Intelligence had suggested that there was an underground bunker with an air-filtration system underneath the old barn. The Brower family had been living there while they negotiated safe passage to the Kuril Islands, where they would be safe from extradition.

The Browers surrendered without incident; that much has been made public by the Chugach Commission. But what happened when the prisoners emerged from their bunker remains under inquiry. According to reports, 32 militia rebels hidden along the north and west end of the airstrip opened fire on the Old Bears. Cannon was hit in the neck and jaw, dying instantly. LaBatte died within minutes after a bullet tore through his thigh, severing his femoral artery. Brower’s son-in-law and both twins were killed in the crossfire. Viejo’s body armor protected her chest and stomach from multiple gunshots, while Winogrand, Cross, Brower and his wife managed to crawl to safety in the ensuing firefight.

For the next 46 minutes, an intense gun battle raged. Twenty-two UPAM rebels and seven Old Bears were killed. Investigators have yet to rule on the incident, but sources close to the commission say the evidence increasingly points to friendly fire as the cause of the Old Bear deaths. Nearly a dozen UPAM rebels may have faced “summary executions,” which could lead to charges against Viejo, the task force’s commander.

Viejo says she still feels guilty about the raid, two years later. “I just have a lot of time to think about it.” But despite the deaths, the investigations, the public scrutiny and controversy, Viejo regards the mission as a success. “We were just amazed by the wealth of information we recovered,” she said. “Phones, DNA Fountain sticks, holo-drives with bank information and future eco-terrorism plots. It was the motherlode.”

In the following weeks, climate task force teams across the globe were able to decrypt eco-terrorist networks and make sweeping arrests. “We were able to find, and capture, these assholes on the wrong side of history,” she says.

The episode would seem to mark the end of Viejo’s military career, and, perhaps, the end of what many consider the Green Revolution’s darker side. It is widely accepted that The Storms of 2033 and the YARS pandemic played central roles in the global Green Revolution, both in terms of inflicting catastrophic, climate-related financial damage on the United States and in providing the international pressure necessary to permanently outlaw carbon emissions. But in the aftermath, as celebrations broke out around the world, the authorities took a controversial approach to eco-justice. In 2038, international courts began prosecuting high-level climate change deniers, including politicians, corporate leaders, journalists and scientists — individuals who “in writing, or by word, publicly denied, diminished or downplayed the impacts of human-caused climate change.” By the end of 2040, an estimated 75 climate criminals remained at large, but as of this year, only eight remain unaccounted for, thanks largely to the half-dozen sanctioned paramilitary groups around the world tasked with tracking and arresting fugitives.

With only a handful of climate criminals still at large, and amid mounting pressure to disarm the task forces, the Old Bears and their sister organizations are disbanding after nearly three decades on the hunt. Little in their training has prepared them for their next challenge: retirement.

Weshoyot Alvitre for High Country News
Weshoyot Alvitre for High Country News

 

I FIRST MET VIEJO IN THE FALL OF 2067 in downtown Niinéniiniicíe, in a café packed with young writers, old radicals, provocative fliers, job hunters and pastries. It was the first of many visits and a lengthy correspondence — a running conversation about life before, and after, the Green Revolution, as well as about her cat (Councilman Beans), her niece, and how she went from cutting-horse competitor to internationally famous and now-retired climate-criminal hunter.

At that first interview, Viejo told me that she would not discuss the details of the Brower raid due to the ongoing investigation. If I wanted to get that story, she said, I could read the volumes of court documents, testimonies, appeals, correspondence, depositions and redacted paperwork currently available from the courts of the Autonomous Federation of Tribal Territories’ mobile infantry judiciary, the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals and the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations. Having been hauled in front of a half-dozen tribunals already, with more to come, Viejo said she was in no mood to be grilled again. As far as she’s concerned, the Browers’ arrests, as well as the intelligence gathered in the raid, made the collateral damage a tragic but necessary price to pay.

Viejo has called Niinéniiniicíe home for more than 20 years. “I got here when the houses were empty and the rents were cheap. A global pandemic really drops property values.” Regionally speaking, it’s the most influential metropolis in the Autonomous Federation of Tribal Territories. Its life as a colonial city has been almost entirely rewritten — to see pieces of the gold-domed, neoclassical capitol building, once a defining feature of the downtown, one must visit the Niinéniiniicíe Documentation Center for the History of Capitalism. Historians and schoolchildren interested in the region’s role in fostering climate crimes can visit the overgrown remains of the Cherokee Generating Station.

North of Niinéniiniicíe, past the ghost towns and overgrown suburbs, a network of smart grids and renewable energy projects blankets the plains. To the east lie the contested territories of the Oceti Sakowin and Osage; to the south, the Pueblo districts; to the north, the Plains Confederacy; and to the west, just over the mountains, the last remaining rebel-held province in the region.

Since it was transferred to tribal control in 2052, Niinéniiniicíe has become known as the city of reinvention. Its entertainment, education, technology, art, politics, tourism, fashion, economy and sports have attracted both tribal citizens and people of settler heritage. Politicians, artists, ambassadors and socialites have moved here, drawn by the good weather and cultural amenities — evening patio cocktail parties that begin with the summer solstice and, for those who can afford the manmade powder, the skiing that begins just before winter solstice. Musicians come to play in the city’s clubs, while college graduates fresh from the Ivies — Sinte Gleska, the Institute of American Indian Arts and Chief Dull Knife College — vie for jobs in the booming negative-emissions tech industry. Today, Niinéniiniicíe is the center of the Indigenous universe, rivaled only by Pāpāwai and S’ólh Téméxw.

Viejo’s celebrity sees her slipping as quietly as possible between her home, her favorite coffee shops and bars, and the Sixkiller Academy, where her niece, Tsah Doe, attends school. The two have been living together for over a year — Rhett, Viejo’s only son, is on a peacekeeping deployment in Araucanía — and the relationship with Tsah Doe, Viejo says, has given her days structure but also has been surprisingly challenging. “The day starts early: I make breakfast, we negotiate what she’ll wear that day, then walk to school. I come home, clean up, then nap — with Councilman Beans, of course. Then I pick Tsah Doe up, make dinner. Wash, rinse and repeat the next day.” Tsah Doe enjoys swimming or horse-riding lessons, visits friends and takes English and Mandarin language classes. “She plays well on her own,” says Viejo. “But if you think heavily armed climate criminals on the lam are tough customers, try getting (Tsah Doe) to bed when My Painted Pony is on the TV.”

Before Viejo became famous, she rode horses. When she was 5, her mother, Alex, moved the family to North Texas to be closer to her parents. Viejo’s grandmother, Elizabeth Rose, was a doctor, and her grandfather, Lee, a former pilot. “Back then, that area was known as the ‘cutting horse capital of the world,’ ” said Viejo. “That’s how I got into it — riding horses. My grandfather made me do it.” By the age of 12, Viejo had gone from youth rookie on the local cutting-horse circuit to taking top marks as a novice. Her goal was to go pro. “It’s all I wanted to do,” she recalled. “Then YARS hit.”

According to the most recent World Health Organization estimates, Yamal Acute Respiratory Syndrome killed approximately 1.8 billion around the world in three pandemic waves between the spring of 2031 and the summer of 2033, touching nearly every person on the planet in one way or another. Viejo lost her riding coaches, then her mother and grandfather. When the pandemic was finally under control, The Storms made landfall. “I remember watching it on the TV with my grandma. We were eating lasagna that day the hurricane hit D.C. It was like watching a monster movie. I saw the White House crumble, Congress flattened. My grandma couldn’t believe it; she didn’t know what to do or if we would even be safe. I think she was like a lot of people back then, wondering what kind of world we were living in, realizing that this was really the end, that all the droughts and wildfires and hurricanes were just warnings. I felt bad, but I think my grandma felt worse, and you could see that feeling on everyone. That hopelessness. It was scary.”

In the wake of The Storms, the question of autonomy, reparations and eco-justice created a kind of power vacuum. With refugees on the move throughout the United States and tribal nations closing their borders, a new leader, Georgette Oak, became head of the rapidly growing Autonomous Federation of Tribal Territories. “Oak wasn’t just the architect of what we now know as the AFTT,” said Sipho Kings, editor and chief at the Mail & Guardian. “He was responsible for attracting movements with harder, more revolutionary leanings, notably the Popular Front for Indigenous Liberation (PFIL).” In 2034, the PFIL declared itself a liberation organization and announced that its enemies were not only American colonialism and imperialism, but also global partner regimes that oppressed Indigenous populations. The group was instantly outlawed. After it began dynamiting government buildings in what were then unceded tribal territories, the group quickly earned notoriety as “terrorists.”

“It was fabulous publicity,” said Lillian Bolano, Vine Deloria professor of history at Harvard University. “Suddenly, Indigenous liberation was on the front page of every newspaper on the planet. Young people could feel the change in the air: It was a call for revolution, and people around the world were affected by it, sympathetic to a war against American imperialism and capitalism led by Indigenous people.”

After carbon emissions were outlawed and climate criminal tribunals established, Viejo and others gravitated to the AFTT and the PFIL. “I can remember the feelings I had when I was a kid, and my mom or my grand-dad read to me at night and told me stories about the world. When it was still green. When you could still swim in the ocean or see snow in the mountains. I would look at nature photographs in magazines and see birds and animals that don’t exist anymore, and they were clear and glossy, and I would look at them for hours and dream about what it was like to see everything in real life. What it was like to see a rainforest, or a glacier. I didn’t have the words then, but I remember the feeling of knowing that those places were dying.

“Now I understand that the feeling was shame — shame and anger. I think that is really why I’ve done what I’ve done, and I don’t need a pardon for it. When the courts started making arrests, police were grabbing guys, like, every other day. In Sweden or Australia or Canada — all these exotic places I had only ever seen on television or in my magazines — these guys were driving around in expensive cars with their families and living in climate-controlled buildings with hydroponic crops and expensive bottled water like nothing was happening. Like the world was OK. And when they went into hiding? That’s when I joined up. I wanted to help grab these assholes, but I settled for dynamiting (Bureau of Indian Affairs) offices.”

In the summer of 2033, Viejo made contact with the PFIL. Viejo refused to discuss her time with the organization. Those stories, she says, are a matter of Tribal Security.

Weshoyot Alvitre for High Country News
Weshoyot Alvitre for High Country News

 

IN FALL OF 2040, THE INTERNATIONAL COURT OF JUSTICE voted overwhelmingly to demand that the United States end its “colonial administration” of North America and return all unceded lands to tribal nations and Indigenous communities. That same year, the PFIL and other liberation movements became bona fide AFTT armed forces, the Olympic Games in southern Chile were cancelled, and the Bast Council agreed to unrestricted transport of people and goods throughout Africa and Europe. One other thing happened: Aoife Viejo became incredibly famous.

Viejo did so unwillingly. She first appeared in AFTT propaganda materials, promoting the PFIL’s transition from rebel group to standing army, then took on a more involved role with the Office of Tribal Information. “I didn’t have a choice in that,” she said. “It was just part of the job.” When it was announced that the AFTT would fund a climate criminal task force, with Viejo leading it, she was quickly dispatched to talk shows and radio programs. Her image appeared on everything from cereal boxes to magazine covers. Her “adventures” appeared in comic books, her personal life became fodder for public consumption.

By 26, Viejo was a household name. As the face of the AFTT, she quickly became an icon of “self-determination and sovereignty.” While her involvement with AFTT propelled her to fame, the notoriety also destroyed her marriage to Woody Stone, an entomologist with the Federation’s reforestation division, and made her a target for the constellation of oil and gas militias, settler secession movements and white nationalist groups opposed to the International Court of Justice’s ruling.

At 29, she survived her first assassination attempt, an FBI-orchestrated shooting outside her Niinéniiniicíe apartment. She spent two months recovering with her ex-husband, Woody. “We spent the whole time playing cards, eating cherries and drinking rum,” she says. The second attempt, a bombing on her 31st birthday planned by the American reconstruction militia Sons of Liberty, earned her a nine-month vacation to the still-frigid shores of Kalaallit Nunaat, where she and Woody conceived their only son, Rhett. The third attempt, a stabbing coordinated by the Soldiers of Washington, an anti-Indigenous colonial group, occurred at 35 after a glamour photo shoot for Indian Country Weekend. “I’ve always felt like that was a kind of an analogy for my life at the time,” she said. “Lying in a pool of blood on the streets of Me-Kwa-Mooks wearing crazy-model makeup. That kind of shit usually only happens when you hang out in Diné Bikéyah.”

Controversy — and violence — were simply part of Viejo’s job, it seemed. “Everyone thought that with the Green Revolution and the land returns that the world would be a nice place, that we’d all be running around, hugging beavers and kissing buffalos,” she said. “It’s not like that.”

Weshoyot Alvitre for High Country News
Weshoyot Alvitre for High Country News

 

IN SPRING 2038, WHEN VIEJO WAS ONLY 18 YEARS OLD, Oklahoma Republican Sen. Perry Inhofe became the first climate criminal prosecuted by international courts. The author of the now-banned book The International Hoax: How the Climate Change Conspiracy Threatens America, Inhofe was notorious in the early part of the 21st century for his vehement denial of human-caused climate change, his anti-climate policy, his acceptance of millions of dollars in campaign donations from the fossil fuel industry, and his penchant for political theater. (Bringing snow to the U.N. in a cooler in an attempt to prove that global warming was fake still ranks as one of his most ludicrous stunts.) Inhofe received a sentence of 362 years for climate crimes. His original handwritten confession is on view at the Niinéniiniicíe Documentation Center for the History of Capitalism, displayed next to a photo of children outside one of the many YARS crematoriums.

Mark Horner, former executive director of the Committee for a Productive Future (CPAF), was the second person to be tried. An anti-climate science think tank bankrolled by oil and gas companies, CPAF was well-known for its stable of lobbyists and for deliberately spreading disinformation in both the U.S. and the E.U. Horner received a life sentence, as did his closest CPAF collaborators and contributors — at least those who were caught.

As international courts issued arrest warrants for climate deniers around the world, those who could afford to go on the lam did. A few reactionary governments and critics called the arrests “an unnecessary act of retribution” and condemned the paramilitary police forces deputized to arrest climate deniers.

In The Pacific, Adam Overlook explicitly rejected the use of paramilitary climate police and called for a return to national autonomy to curb international abuses of power. “One problem victims of environmental crimes seem to forget in this so-called ‘golden age of justice’ is that by placing all climate crimes on the shoulders and in the hearts of pernicious oil executives or crooked Republicans, we are able to assuage our own guilt and believe that climate change wasn’t a communal effort. That there was nothing ever wrong with our own behavior. That there was, in fact, a bad man in a black hat the whole time, and once he was arrested, we law-abiding citizens could restore order to the world, and crush such cruel designs and malicious plots.”

Viejo herself is no stranger to personal criticism. Shortly before its collapse, The New York Times called her “a violent thug who has already murdered American democracy and now returned to kick its corpse for fun,” while the Philadelphia Inquirer’s editorial board continues to demand her “immediate arrest for violations of international human rights covenants.” U.S. security services have a standing order to arrest or kill Viejo on sight, should she enter U.S. territory — a threat Viejo shrugs off. “Nobody wants to go to the U.S. anyway,” she says. “It’s what folks used to call ‘a shithole country.’ ”

As raids and arrests have become more violent, pressure has been mounting globally to dismantle groups like the Old Bears. The Citronen Club, a Danish-funded task force, faced criminal charges after a botched arrest attempt led to the deaths of 23 civilians on a bus in Aalborg, while in Chile, climate-criminal hunters were eventually arrested after investigators learned that the task force hunted and killed friends and family of climate deniers for “sport.” The Old Bear deaths and investigations have served as a turning point for international attitudes, but Viejo stands by her and her colleagues’ actions.

Yet temperatures continue to rise — and there’s the rub. Despite the outlawing of emissions and a complete switch to renewables, post-Industrial Revolution carbon dioxide is still in the atmosphere cycling through the earth’s system. Scientists don’t know how long it will take for the planet to return to safe levels of carbon dioxide and say it could take centuries. “It was already too late when we started (the Green Revolution),” said Viejo.

SINCE RETURNING TO CIVILIAN LIFE, Viejo has been primarily concerned with finding work. Her search took an unusual turn three weeks ago.

To the east, the capital of the remaining United States, Washington, D.C., remains a colossal mess of ravaged neoclassical buildings and overgrown row houses. The city’s thoroughfares are as decrepit as they are dangerous, much like the streets of Charlotte, New York, Philadelphia and the few remaining metropolises on what’s left of the United States.

Nearly two decades after the collapse of the U.S. economy, the former republic struggles with abysmal health statistics, social ills, and psychological challenges. Alcohol-related deaths among white people are the highest of any minority group, while white men are imprisoned at five times the rate of their Indigenous counterparts. The unemployment rate for white men still is approximately 15 times the rate in the Tribal Territories — up 15% since 2062 — and at least 40% of white families live in abject poverty. Rolling blackouts have done no favors to the flat-lined economies of the flailing nation.

Last year, Autonomous Federation of Tribal Territories airlift planes transported more than 3.5 million tons of food to the U.S. in “Operation Independence.” The planes originally returned with passengers hoping to become citizens of the Territories, but this spring, strained diplomatic relations between the U.S. and the Federation put a temporary halt to accepting refugees. Tribes remain divided on the matter, but continue to fly goods and products into the U.S. By the end of the year, it’s estimated that 275,000 missions will have been flown to Washington, D.C., Boston and New York, feeding nearly 16 million people.

According to AFTT officials, the ongoing effort will now be led by Viejo, thanks to the end of the Chugach Commission’s nearly seven-year investigation, which was dismissed on a technicality a few weeks ago, after the testimony of surviving Old Bears were inadmissible. Katrina Winogrand, Jack Cross and Aoife Viejo, the courts argue, had not been fully informed of their rights before they spoke with investigators directly after the firefight. Viejo avoided a dishonorable discharge and can continue her military career with Operation Independence.

Speaking by phone, Viejo said she was relieved by the acquittal, but remained tight-lipped about her feelings toward investigators, media inquiries and speculation. She acknowledged that she was not free from blame. “I was in charge, so that responsibility is on me. They were my friends. I’ll have to carry their deaths.” She said she did not know how long she would feel that way.

“When I was a kid, I shot a ground dove with a pellet gun to see what would happen, maybe just because I could. Knocked it right off a telephone line. But it didn’t die — I only hit it in the wing. Instead, it flopped around and tried to fly away with its good wing. It was hurt and scared but still pretty fast, so I chased after it, for almost a block, just hoping I could find a way to say I was sorry. To take back what I had done. I had never felt so ashamed in my life. I still do.” Viejo paused for a long moment, then continued. “I think about that a lot, and my friends who died. I pray for them. I tell them that I still need their help and guidance and strength. I tell them I’m still trying to get something right here. I’m still trying to figure out what that is.”

Advertisements

Tristan Ahtone

Tristan Ahtone is a member of the Kiowa Tribe and serves as associate editor for tribal affairs at High Country News. He has reported for PBS NewsHour, National Native News, Wyoming Public Radio, NPR, Al Jazeera America, Indian Country Today, and National Geographic, and more. Tristan’s stories have won multiple honors, including investigative awards from Public Radio News Directors Incorporated and the Gannett Foundation. He additionally was awarded a Nieman Fellowship to study at Harvard University in 2017. He is president of the Native American Journalists Association.

Submit a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s