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Children's Trust Wins Legal Battles on Climate Change

By Dan Garner, Jul 27 2016 12:16AM

A scrappy little group of lawyers and scientists in Eugene, Oregon is shaking up the legal world by suing the federal government, on behalf of young people everywhere, to take action to reduce carbon dioxide emissions for the health of our planet. The group named “Our Children’s Trust” is a nonprofit corporation (http://ourchildrenstrust.org/) and has made surprising progress on recent cases here in the Pacific Northwest. Regardless of your feelings on the climate change debate, if you cheer for the underdogs you have to be impressed by the “David v. Goliath” nature of this undertaking and its goal of literally saving the world.

In Washington State, the group sued the Washington Department of Ecology for failing to write rules limiting greenhouse gas emissions (Zoe and Stella Foster; et. al v. Washington Department of Ecology, Case No. 14-2-25295-1, King County Superior Court.) In an opinion dated May 16, 2016, Judge Hollis R. Hill directed the Department “to adopt a rule to limit greenhouse gas emissions in Washington state . . . by the end of calendar year 2016.” This decision reversed the Court’s previous ruling in November 2015 that the Department did not have to take the action requested by the group. Governor Inslee has appealed the decision.

In Oregon, U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas M. Coffin ruled on April 8, 2016 against a motion to dismiss filed by the U.S. Government and an array of fossil fuel trade groups who are the defendants in the case (Kelsey Cascade Rose Juliana; et. al v. The United States of America; et. al, D.Or,2016.) U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken scheduled oral argument in the case for September 13, 2016 in the Eugene federal court. According to a press release issued on June 9, “The plaintiffs sued the federal government for violating their constitutional rights to life, liberty and property, and their right to essential public trust resources, by permitting, encouraging, and otherwise enabling continued exploitation, production, and combustion of fossil fuels.”

Elsewhere, in Massachusetts they obtained a ruling similar to the one in Washington State, directing the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection to promulgate regulations to limit and reduce greenhouse gases in compliance with state law (Isabel Kain; et. al v. Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, Mass., 2016.)

Scientists for the group argue that immediate action is required to reduce carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere from the current level of 395 ppm to 350 ppm by the end of this century. Their plan calls for annual emissions reductions of 6 percent, coupled with massive reforestation (to absorb additional carbon dioxide.) Without such measures, they predict the loss of hundreds of coastal cities due to rising sea levels and consequent mass migrations from them, plus severe fresh water shortages from glacial evaporation, and the extinction of nearly half of all species on earth, partly due to ocean acidification. The loss of that much biological diversity could have catastrophic effects on the food chain and result in sharp increases in malnutrition and starvation.

The legal action being taken by Our Children’s Trust and its environmental allies is known as Atmospheric Trust Litigation (ATL) based on the doctrine that an essential purpose of government is to protect natural resources for the survival and welfare of its citizens. It is being driven by young people because they are the ones who will suffer most if these dire predictions of climate change and its consequences actually come to pass.

As the source of 25 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, the United States has a moral obligation to take the lead in reducing the risks to current and future generations even if we cannot be completely certain of the accuracy of the predictions. Our very survival may depend on it. When the public health is at stake, the prudent course is to err on the side of caution even if it causes some economic dislocation. The alternative could be calamity.

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