The future has decided not to wait for us to address climate change. In Eugene, Oregon, a group of 21 elementary and high school students has taken matters into its own hands and is suing the federal government as well as trade groups representing energy companies such as British Petroleum and Exxon Mobil over their role in contributing to carbon emissions. And why shouldn’t kids sue the government and oil giants over climate change?
“This is the biggest issue on the planet,” said climate scientist and Columbia University professor James Hansen, who is also one of the named plaintiffs in the case. Hansen spoke soon after a hearing on the case, held in the federal court in Eugene, at which attorneys for the defendants argued for the case to be dismissed. For her part, the plaintiffs’ attorney, Julia Olson, argued that U.S. Magistrate Judge Tom Coffin has a duty to hear the case.
“Our nation will be properly served when this court exercises its constitutional duty and hears this case,” Olson said in her argument. Her young clients claim that the federal government is violating their Fifth Amendment right to life, liberty and property by allowing excessive amounts of carbon emissions into the atmosphere.
According to Jack Moran in the Eugene Register-Guard, “The lawsuit alleges the government has known for more than 50 years that carbon dioxide pollution causes climate change but has failed to implement plans to phase out greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, government officials have promoted the development and use of fossil fuels, the plaintiffs say.”
Not so, the defendants say. “Nothing supports the claims in this case,” said Quin Sorenson, an attorney for the oil companies during the hearing. Specifically, the defense makes a two-part argument. First, they argue that the suit should be dismissed for failing to make a valid legal claim. The regulation of carbon emissions, they say, is the province of administrative agencies and legislatures, not the courts. Second, the defense argues that the plaintiffs lack standing because they fail to demonstrate any actual or imminent harm, basing their complaint on general harms. On the other hand, the oil companies argue that a finding for the plaintiffs would cause them serious harm.
The suit is an intriguing one and, if allowed to go forward, could become a landmark case. Just who, we must ask ourselves, has standing to sue on behalf of the planet or the human species. Who better perhaps than the children who will inherit the disastrous conditions science predicts for their lifetimes? Rising sea and tide levels and the submersion of coastal cities everywhere, catastrophic weather events, the massive release of methane gas predicted to attend the melting of the Greenland ice sheet—are these not “imminent” harms if by imminence we mean harms that almost certainly cannot be averted?
“We need to act now, and fast,” said a Eugene third grader named Marshall, addressing the rally outside the courthouse where the hearing was held. Whether speaking his own words or reciting a script provided by an adult, Marshall is right. Immediate and drastic action is needed.
While the energy companies’ attorney makes a seemingly valid point in asserting that energy and emissions regulation is the job of the executive and legislative branches, the fact is that the revolving door between government and industry, the influence to be had from campaign contributions, and other sources of political clout all result in an anemic effort on the part of government to combat global warming, and utterly ineffectual gestures toward weaning the country off fossil fuels.
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