The 21 young people challenging the US government over climate change.
On June 4th a group of 21 young people suing the US government over its failure to tackle climate change had their day in a federal district court in Portland in the northwestern US state of Oregon. The case, known as Juliana vs US, was raised in 2015 by Kelsey Juliana, now 23 and the oldest of the plaintiffs who were recruited from across the country by lawyer Julia Olson. The plaintiffs argue climate change has threatened to flood islands where they live, damaged homes due to extreme storms, and harmed their health by generating wildfire smoke and extended pollen seasons. They contend that the government is responsible for risking their future by supporting the production and use of fossil fuels, the main cause of climate change. The government not only subsidises the fossil fuel industry to the tune of $20 billion a year but also permits emitters to evade paying the costs of air pollution, increasing the figure to $650 billion.
During a one-hour hearing, a panel of three judges questioned plaintiffs about how the court could address injuries they have suffered due to government policies and actions that have led to and boosted global warming. “Remedy comes at the end of the case,” stated Philip Gregory, another lawyer for the young people. Since the judges focused on this aspect, he found the proceedings “very positive.” The judges are in a difficult position. While sympathising with the plaintiffs’ perilous situations, the judges are uncertain if they can intervene although the case may involve criminal neglect.
The judges will decide whether or not the case is tried in district court or is dismissed. Naturally, government lawyers argue for dismissal in this hearing as they have ever since the case was lodged. It may be months before the court issues its ruling.
Olson launched this crusade to tackle climate change by establishing an organisation called Our Children’s Trust. She has produced a 36,000 page dossier on the impacts of climate change on the lives of children in the US. She shows that the effects of climate change have been known for half a century — since the 1960s presidency of Lyndon Johnson. Olson pointed out that every administration has been aware that burning fossil fuels has been causing climate change.
In an interview with CBS news, Olson said, “Our government, at the highest levels, knew and was briefed in it regularly by the national security community, by the scientific community. They have known for a very long time that (climate change) was a big threat.” She pointed out that the threat to people’s lives and safety is not disputed and the government has been forced to admit that human action has increased the production of greenhouse gases which have been the major cause of global warming since the 1990s.
The lawsuit claims that the executive and legislative branches of the government have failed to tackle climate change, to protect the country’s water, air, forest and coasts, and petitions the federal courts to force the government to draft a plan that would end the use of fossil fuels by 2050.
When the case was filed four years ago, the government — the sainted Obama administration — believed it would be quickly dismissed. But in November 2016, Judge Ann Aiken ruled, “Exercising my reasoned judgement, I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society.” Her decision has been appealed by the Trump administration three times in a California court and twice in the Supreme Court. On each occasion the appeals have failed. The government does not want the case to go to trial because Olson’s evidence will be presented in a trial which will finish off the Trump administration’s climate change deniers and their lies which they call “alternative facts.”
The US produces 25 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gases. The defendants demand the government formulate a plan to “phase out fossil fuel emissions and draw down excess atmospheric C02 (carbon dioxide) so as to stabilise the climate system and protect the vital resources on which plaintiffs will now depend.” The judges are expected to break “new ground” if they decide in favour of the plaintiffs.
The US Academy of Pediatrics, Thoracic Society, Heart Association and Lung Association and the League of Women Voters have filed briefs supporting the suit. Democratic party representatives in Congress have also extended backing to the suit.
Olson has recruited plaintiffs from 10 states affected in different ways by climate change.
Kelsey Julian is a veteran climate warrior from Eugene, Oregon, were she is an undergraduate at the state university. Oregon has been plagued with erratic weather and during the summer dense smoke from forests burning in the state of Washington and Canada to the north.
Jaime B, 18, is a native American who grew up on a Navajo Nation reservation in Arizona and, due to drought, had to move from their home to Flagstaff in the well-watered green mountains. The springs on the reservation dried up making it impossible for the tribe to plant crops and raise livestock.
Levi Draheim, 11, lives on a Florida island that is two kilometres wide and just above sea level. He fears that rising seas due to climate change will flood his home and drive his family from the island.
Sophie Kivlehen, 20, from the state of Pennsylvania has experienced a hurricane, tornado warnings, hailstones that damaged her house and the flooding of roads preventing her from attending school.
Jayden Foytlin, 15, from the southern state of Louisiana, says her home has been swamped twice in the recent years and expects more flooding due to climate change. In 2016, disaster struck when a storm dumped 46 centimetres of rain on the state in 48 hours, flooding her home with sewage and rain- water.
A resident of California, a state prone to wildfires, Leon Zha, 17, wrote to National Geographic magazine: “As a citizen of America, I have the same right to life, liberty, and property as my forefathers. But what life do I have if I die twenty years early from carcinogenic smog? What liberty, if I must stay indoors all day to avoid the stroke-inducing heat? What property, if the land itself is burned to ash?”
($1 = Dhs3.67)