Children join forces to demand action
on climate change

I find it fascinating that children are making a strong legal argument that governments must take swift action to reduce climate change.

A series of lawsuits across the country are founded on the idea that many adults will be gone in 40 or 50 years when climate extremes become the new norm. It is the young people of today who will suffer the consequences of ongoing government inaction.

In a case filed by a group of children in King County Superior Court, Judge Hollis Hill took the Washington Department of Ecology and Gov. Jay Inslee to task for delaying action on new clean air regulations to help curb greenhouse gas emissions:

“Petitioners assert, the department does not dispute, and this court finds that current scientific evidence establishes that rapidly increasing global warming causes an unprecedented risk to the Earth, including land, sea, the atmosphere and all living plants and animals…

“In fact, as petitioners assert and this court finds, their very survival depends upon the will of their elders to act now, decisively and unequivocally, to stem the tide of global warming by accelerating the reduction of emission of GHGs (greenhouse gases) before doing so becomes too costly and then too late.

“The scientific evidence is clear that the current rates of reduction mandated by Washington law cannot achieve the GHG reductions necessary to protect our environment and to ensure the survival of an environment in which petitioners can grow to adulthood safely.”

One can download Hill’s full opinion (PDF 2.6 mb) from Our Children’s Trust website. Also, reporter Jeannie Yandel of radio station KUOW interviewed the attorney and some of the children involved in the case.

Attorney Andrea Rogers (far right) poses with young plaintiffs outside a King County courtroom. Their legal victory requires state government to address climate change by the end of 2016. Photo: Our Children’s Trust
Attorney Andrea Rogers (far right) poses with young plaintiffs outside a King County courtroom. Their legal victory requires state government to address climate change by the end of 2016. // Photo: Our Children’s Trust

It is ironic that Gov. Inslee finds himself under attack for failure to act against greenhouse gas emissions, given that he is one of the nation’s leading advocates for action on climate change. Inslee literally wrote the book on this issue while serving in Congress: “Apollo’s Fire: Igniting America’s Clean Energy Economy.”

Unable to get the Legislature to act on his specific program, the governor is now on a course to impose new regulations to force a reduction in greenhouse gases. Initially, the new standards would apply to large industrial sources. The governor says his authority stems from a 2008 law passed by the Legislature requiring a reduction to 1990 emission levels by 2020. We can expect the rule to be challenged by business interests.

Originally, the rule was to be completed this summer, but the proposal was withdrawn in February in light of an overwhelming number of comments and new ideas that needed to be addressed. The rule is scheduled to be re-released later this month and adopted by the end of the year.

Judge Hill’s latest ruling from the bench on April 29 requires Ecology to adopt the rule by the end of the year. That fits within Ecology’s current schedule, said Camille St. Onge, spokeswoman for Ecology. Whether the agency might appeal the ruling to preserve its options won’t be decided until after the judge’s written findings are issued, she said.

“We agree with Judge Hill,” St. Onge told me in an email. “Climate change is a global issue, and science is telling us that what was projected years ago is happening today, and we need to act now to protect our environment and economy for future generations. We’re working vigorously on Washington’s first-ever rule to cap and reduce carbon pollution and help slow climate change.”

Gov. Inslee said in a news release that he has no dispute with Judge Hill’s findings, which actually support his approach to combatting climate change:

“This case is a call to act on climate, and that call is one that has been a priority for me since taking office. Our state is helping lead the way on climate action in our country…

“In a way it is gratifying that the court has also affirmed our authority to act, contrary to the assertion of those who continue to reject action on climate change and ocean acidification. Hundreds of people have participated in the creation of our state's Clean Air Rule and the draft will be out in just a few weeks.”

For details about the proposed Clean Air Rule, visit Ecology’s website.

Meanwhile, Washington state is not the only state where youth have filed lawsuits to assert their rights to a healthy future. Cases also are pending in Oregon, Massachusetts, Colorado and North Carolina, according to Our Children’s Trust, which provides details about the state lawsuits on its website.

At the same time, another case is underway in U.S. District Court in Oregon, where Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin ruled that the young plaintiffs have standing and legitimate claims to be adjudicated. He allowed the case to move forward with additional evidence to be submitted. Read his April 8 ruling (PDF 3.2 mb) on the website of Our Children’s Trust.

The video below features reporter Bill Moyers discussing the legal issues in these cases, which include claims related to the Public Trust Doctrine, an ancient principle that asserts the public’s right to use and enjoy certain natural resources that cannot be ceded to private property owners.

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