Climate hero of the week

Climate hero of the week: These kids who are suing the federal government

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WASHINGTON, DC, USA - FEBRUARY 14, 2016: Flags fly at half-staff at the United States Supreme Court as the sun rises on the first day after Justice Antonin Scalia's death was announced.

Shutterstock: Image/Erik Cox Photography

As we continue to see the effects of global climate change, it’s always heartening when we stumble across a story that shows how the general public bands together to help make a difference. Here at OutwardOn we are dedicated to honoring those who create innovative solutions to our world’s biggest climate problems. This week in Climate hero of the week we are introducing the young people suing the federal government for climate change.

In light of the recent election results and the American people electing Donald Trump as the next POTUS, we at OutwardOn are concerned, to put it mildly. The most powerful nation in the world has elected a leader that doesn’t believe in climate change, and we are not alone in realizing the impact this will have on the progress of climate justice.

But through the smog of Trump’s impending administration, we have found a glimmer of hope. Slate reported that the children and young adults suing the federal government for their right to a stable climate can now proceed to trial in 2017, an unprecedented move in the American legal system.

U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken ruled in favor of the 21 children and young adults (ages 9 through 20) in their suit against the federal government.

In denying the government’s motion to dismiss, Aiken, based in Eugene, Oregon, opened a path for an eventual court-mandated, science-based plan to bring about sharp emissions reductions in the United States. The case, Juliana v. United States, will now go to trial starting sometime in 2017 and could prove to be a major civil rights suit, eventually finding its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society.” Explained Aiken.

These young plaintiffs argue that climate change violates their constitutional rights to life, liberty and property, not to mention destroying public trust assets such as coastlines.

Slate reports that “The case argues that climate change is worsened by the aggregated actions of the federal government in permitting fossil fuel development, subsidizing the fossil fuel industry, and many other such actions.” The young people and their attorneys are also alleging that these government actions are placing short-term profit, convenience and the current generation’s concerns over the future generation’s. This group of young plaintiffs points out that the government (along with several companies) have promoted short-term gains for more than fifty years now, being fully aware of the damage being caused on the environment, and therefore on future generations.

The plaintiffs had filed suit based upon many personal ailments and hardships they’re facing because the government hasn’t taken even remotely adequate action in climate justice over the years. The lead plaintiff, Kelsey Juliana, of Oregon, says “that algae blooms harm the water she needs to drink and that low water levels caused by drought kill the wild salmon she needs to eat.” While Martinez, of Colorado, is concerned with the extreme flooding and wildfires jeopardizing his personal safety. Many other plaintiffs filed on regards of pollution, the ruining of their farmland (therefore taking quite the hit on them economically), ailments such as asthma, and more.

The suit claims that by failing to protect these children from human-caused climate-related harm, the government violated the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. It goes on to say that these harms, and others, are caused in part by climate change and are preventable if the government acts to hasten the transition to a zero-carbon economy.

Under Aiken’s ruling, she explained that climate change should be considered unconstitutional:

I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society. Just as marriage is the foundation of the family, a stable climate system is quite literally the foundation of society, without which there would be neither civilization nor progress. … To hold otherwise would be to say that the Constitution affords no protection against a government’s knowing decision to poison the air its citizens breathe or the water its citizens drink.

Aiken’s and the plaintiff’s foundation of this suit is summed up by the “inactions of the government on climate change have ‘so profoundly damaged our home planet that they threaten plaintiffs’ fundamental constitutional rights to life and liberty.”

It is expected that this lawsuit will be one of the most significant in American history, one that will be held in the same regard as Plessy v Ferguson, Roe v Wade and Obergefell v HodgesIf Aiken and the plaintiffs have their way, Juliana v. United States will be a major turning point for the world of climate change and for the American people in general.

“There is no question that this decision, in both its eloquence and its bold declaration of a new constitutional right, breaks new ground,” said Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University. “In the context of Tuesday’s election and the threat of a Trump administration that may well be steadfastly opposed to any climate action whatsoever, this provides some hope that our courts will step forward and protect the health and well-being of current and future generations.”

Though we are aware that this wouldn’t mean immediate change in policy (the trial and appeal process could take years to sort out), we are aware that Aiken’s action proves that a big step is being taken on the Earth’s behalf.

“One can expect that this case will eventually find its way to the Supreme Court,” Burger told Slate. “This case is a case of potentially extraordinary impact.”

While this suit is currently against President Barack Obama, as well as other parts of the executive branch, President-Elect Donald Trump will become the defendant once he is sworn in as POTUS. This group of young people are encouraging President Obama to come and speak to them about possible relief before Donald Trump assumes office in January, giving the Obama Administration one more shot at taking this very real climate issue seriously.

The significance of the United States taking on this responsibility in our homeland is a big one, considering we contribute to 25% of historical emissions since the start of the industrial revolution, according to Slate. 

So we at OutwardOn want to applaud these young plaintiffs for their determination and hard work in bringing justice to our environment and those that inhabit it. This just goes to show us that the youth really are our future and can make a large impact. We are just as proud as we are excited to see what the outcome of this trial will be, holding on to our hope that big brother will take our Earth seriously for once and for all.

Shutterstock: Image/Erik Cox Photography

Ellen contributed to this piece.