Is 21 the Magic Climate Number?
21 is a number that’s come up a lot in recent climate discussions.
It took world leaders 21 years to reach the agreement on climate change announced in Paris last year at COP21.
It took 21 young plaintiffs, all under 21 years old just a few months to get the green light to proceed with a lawsuit against the United States Government asserting that inaction on climate deprives them of life, liberty and “a climate system capable of sustaining human life.”
The case could have interesting implications for the Donald Trump administration when the case goes to trial in 2017.
The youth, ages 9 to 20, are asking the courts to order the U.S. Government, among other things:
“to prepare and implement an enforceable national remedial plan to phase out fossil fuel emissions and draw down excess atmospheric CO2 so as to stabilize the climate system and protect the vital resources on which Plaintiffs now and in the future will depend.” (First Amended Complaint for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief, filed 9/10/15, copy here)
Fossil fuel interests and the U.S. Government tried to get U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken to toss the lawsuit. But in a ruling in early November, Judge Aiken ruled the case can proceed, saying (on page 21!!):
“plaintiffs’ alleged injuries – harm to their personal, economic and aesthetic interests – are concrete and particularized”
Judge Aiken’s ruling (copy here) also discusses the relation of the relief sought in the lawsuit to U.S. climate commitments:
“Although the United States has made international commitments regarding climate change, granting the relief requested here would be fully consistent with those commitments. There is no contradiction between promising other nations the United States will reduce CO2 emissions and a judicial order directing the United States to go beyond its international commitments to more aggressively reduce CO2 emissions.”
Timeline outlining U.S. government knowledge of climate change problems presented by plaintiffs during court proceedings. Source here
This federal case is one of many related legal actions brought by youth in several states and countries, all supported by Our Children’s Trust, seeking science-based action by governments to stabilize the climate system. The case also follows a similar case decided in the Netherlands in 2015. In the Dutch case, the courts ruled on behalf of youth that the government must more quickly reduce fossil fuel emissions (see Guardian story here).
News of the action in the Our Children’s Trust case came to delegates at the COP22 event in Marrakech, Morocco just as they were learning that Donald Trump had won the U.S. election. The possibility of U.S. courts stepping in on behalf of future generations was well received by those worried about the direction the U.S. might take under the new administration.
“Judge Aiken recognized the inherent sovereign duty of the U.S. government to protect the fundamental rights of young people and future generations to life, liberty, and a climate system capable of sustaining human life,” said Elizabeth Brown, staff attorney for Our Children’s Trust at a press conference during COP22 on November 11.
Our Children’s Trust staff attorney Elizabeth Brown discusses Judge Aiken’s decision at press conference during COP22 in Marrakech, Morocco (Photo by Michael Paparian)
“These youth plaintiffs now have the opportunity to prove in court that the U.S. has knowingly put them and their generation in grave danger, trading their futures for the short-term profits for a few, in violation of their constitutional and public trust rights,” said attorney Borwn. “Plaintiffs will ask this court to order the federal defendants to put the United States on a science-based path to climate stabilization.”
“We as young people have a right to life on this planet,” said Daniel Jubelirer, a youth organizer and activist working with plaintiff organization Earth Guardians. This case going to trial proves that our futures matter .. we’ll see President Elect Trump in court.”
Daniel Jubelirer of Earth Guardians discusses lawsuit at COP22 in Marrakech (photo by Michael Paparian)
“It’s clear Judge Aiken gets what’s at stake for us,” said 17-year-old plaintiff Victoria Barrett, from White Plains, New York. “Our planet and our generation don’t have time to waste. We are moving to trial and I’m looking forward to having the world see the incredible power my generation holds.”
At the Marrakech press conference, Columbia University Professor Jeffrey Sachs (recognized by Economist magazine as one of the three most influential living economists) discussed the importance of this precedent-setting lawsuit to resolving climate issues and protecting future generations. “The judiciary,” he said, “is the final place where citizens have their redress for rights denied.”
Professor Jeffrey Sachs discusses lawsuit at press conference in Marrakech, Morocco during COP22 (photo by Michael Paparian)
Assisting with the court case is climate scientist Dr. James Hansen, who brought the climate crisis to the attention of the U.S. Congress in the 1980s and has been advising world leaders ever since. His 30 page declaration for the plaintiffs is also an excellent primer on the climate issue (copy here). Hansen’s granddaughter, Sofie Kivlehan, is one of the plaintiffs. According to Dr. Hansen,
“Simply put: Our government’s persistent permitting and underwriting of fossil fuel projects serves now to further disrupt the favorable climate system that to date enabled human civilization to develop. In order to preserve a viable climate system, our use of fossil fuels must be phased out as rapidly as is feasible. … Our government’s permitting of additional, new, or renewed fossil fuel projects is entirely antithetical to its fundamental responsibility to our children and their posterity. Their fundamental rights now hang in the balance.” Declaration of Dr. James E. Hansen, page 31.
Climate Scientist Dr. Jame E. Hansen at COP21 in Paris Grandfather of one of the plaintiffs (photo by Michael Paparian)
In late November, the court said they expect the case to go to trial in the summer or fall of 2017, even though the defendants argued that it could take five years to go through procedural matters and discovery. Attorneys for the youth said they want to proceed. “We will push quickly to trial. The urgency of the climate emergency demands it,” said Julia Olson, counsel for Plaintiffs.
If these 21 youth are successful at trial, their case will contribute to needed and rapid solutions to the climate crisis, making the 21st and future centuries more livable century than they would otherwise be. 21 may indeed be an interesting climate number.
Photos of the youth plaintiffs and statements from each can be found here. This case is also starting to get attention in national media, including a Washington Post story here and New Yorker story here.
This article was originally posted at ClimateDispatch blog. It has been reprinted here with permission.