Youth climate change lawsuit controversy continues
Monday, June 10, 2019
Seven-generation sustainability is the idea that we should only impact the earth in a manner that can sustain itself seven generations into the future. We may be far from that sensibility today, and time is running out, but young people are making a notable contribution to nothing short of planetary survival.
From jobs to health to education, many issues connect to the planet’s future, and the young will bear the greatest brunt of any negative ecological developments.
Seven-generation sustainability? Or total ecological devastation, replete with existential meltdown, by 2050? Who decides?
In 2015, the Juliana v. the United States climate change case was launched in the U.S. District Court of Oregon by 21 young people. That was four years ago already, and as of today it is still unclear whether or not the case will go forward.
Juliana argues that government leaders failed young people by violating their constitutional right to a clean environment. If the Trump administration has its way, there is no climate change case against the U.S. government because climate change is not a threat.
In November, the Supreme Court sent Juliana back to the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. A three-judge panel, consisting of Mary H. Murguia and Andrew D. Hurwitz of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals; and Josephine L. Staton of District Court for the Central District of California, heard the case in Portland in early June.
This ruling, which could take up to six months, has major repercussions for separation of powers between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. Here, the judiciary would be stepping in to regulate or even punish the other branches for their roles in environmental devastation.
Can the judiciary intervene and force the other branches to honor the right to a clean environment? Better yet, is the judiciary prepared to take on an activist approach to climate change as more problems — ranging from fires, tornadoes, and hurricanes to rising sea levels, drought, and flooding — compound as we wait for solutions.
Health issues alone pose great risks for young people facing climate change. The New England Journal of Medicine submitted an amicus briefing to the Ninth Circuit that explains the rising health threats from extreme heat, air and water pollution: “The failure of the federal government to reduce the United States’ reliance on fossil fuels and reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and other dangerous pollutants has put our children in danger. We believe this failure represents a breach of our collective responsibility to our children. Young people are entitled to a safe and healthy environment in which to grow, bear children, and live to an old age.”
While the clock ticks on climate change action, 15 health organizations and two former U.S. Surgeon Generals support the lawsuit. According to Nina Pullano of Inside Climate News, the suit’s reliance on “public trust doctrine” defines clean land, air, and water as a fundamental right protected by government.
Is it the government’s responsibility to guarantee a clean environment? Or better, how much can we expect from federal, state and local governments moving forward on climate change action?
Previously, the GOP has been resistant to climate change action, but that’s changing as Democratic presidential contenders acknowledge the pressing need here. Joe Biden, for example, embraces the federal role combating climate change: “...Biden says he will work hard to point the federal ship of state toward climate action. He promises to implement a muscular set of executive orders on his first day in the White House. He will require public companies to disclose climate-incurred costs, deploy the federal government’s purchasing power on the side of clean energy, and restrict the release of the super powerful greenhouse gas methane from oil and gas wells.”
As we await the Juliana case decision, which could establish a legal precedent for federal government environmental protections, we will continue to see people initiate their own solutions. Some critics suggest government has always presented more problems than solutions when it comes to cleaning up the environment, but this cynicism has not stopped proposals suggesting otherwise.
His presidential campaign is singularly focused on climate change, pushing other contenders to clarify their own positions while Congress mulls over the more comprehensively proposed Green New Deal. As of June 6, only one major union, the Service Employees Industrial Union (SEIU), has endorsed the Green New Deal — but that’s a start.
Bringing labor, nonprofits, academia and education, and health sectors to coordinate action continues to be a priority for all those thinking sustainably — even seven generations forward — about government’s responsibility toward the planet’s future.
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