Now it’s nearly too late, and the kids are headed for the courts.
Climate Change 1988
National Aeronautics and Space Administration Scientist James Hansen tells the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that “global warming has begun.”
Philip Shabecoff, reporting for The New York Times, wrote, “If Dr. Hansen and other scientists are correct, then humans, by burning of fossil fuels and other activities, have altered the global climate in a manner that will affect life on earth for centuries to come.”
Hansen and the other scientists were, in fact, right.
Climate Change 2018
Thirty years later, Hansen “… called for a wave of lawsuits against governments and fossil fuel companies that are delaying action on climate change,” according to the authors of a piece that appeared in the Oxford Journal of Legal Studies. “For Hansen, a pioneer of climate science, the key is to sue corporations like ExxonMobil, BP and Shell for the damage they are doing to the environment, those affected and future generations.”
The leading climate scientist of his time had retired by that time. His granddaughter had become one of the 21 young plaintiffs in Juliana vs. United States, a lawsuit filed in 2015 against the federal government. In the suit, the claimants asserted that, “…through the government’s affirmative actions that cause climate change, it has violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources.”
Climate Change 2021
Hansen wanted the U.S. government to act in 1988. It didn’t. Not then and not for the 30-plus years he tried to get people to understand what we’ve been doing to our only planet and ourselves, practically begging leaders to take the actions necessary to avoid disaster.
I can almost hear him saying, “Well, you fools, seeing as you refused to act on your own, we’ll go ahead and force you.”
While it’s doubtful the esteemed scientist would say anything of the sort, the sentiment is right there between the lines of Juliana and dozens of other lawsuits around the world.
Everyone from kids to scientists and states to nations are suing nations and states, not to mention fossil fuel companies. We now know – FACT – that they’ve known for decades what their products were doing to Earth and humans but did nothing about it. Worse, we know – FACT – they lied about it in aggressive, well-funded misinformation and propaganda campaigns. And they greased the palms of plenty of politicians.
Now it’s face-up-’fess-up time. Here’s a sampling of headlines with links to stories:
- “Kids are taking governments to court over climate. And they are starting to win”
- “European Climate Change Lawsuit Spotlights Child Rights”
- “UK students sue government over human rights impact of climate crisis”
- “Activists Are Suing Governments Over the State of the Environment — and Winning”
- “New Youth Climate Lawsuit Launched Against UK Government on Five Year Anniversary of Paris Agreement”
- “Climate lawsuits are breaking new legal ground to protect the planet”
- “ExxonMobil sued for decades of lies”
- “Five States Have Filed Climate Change Lawsuits, Seeking Damages From Big Oil and Gas”
You ask me, the litigious trend is welcome. And necessary.
21 Kids vs. Climate Change
I first became aware of climate-change lawsuits not long after the 21 kids filed Juliana. I’ve written about the case before, and about the new generation leading the climate-crisis struggle on the steps of parliaments, in the streets and inside courtrooms. As I said then, “Leave it to a bunch of kids.”
The youth in Juliana are momentarily on standby, waiting for a court ruling about whether they can amend their original complaint. On March 9, 2021, Our Children’s Trust, which is assisting the 21 young people, sent an email to supporters –
“In a historic ruling in 2016, (U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken declared) that the U.S. Constitution protects the fundamental right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life. If Judge Aiken grants the youths’ request filed today, the 21 youth plaintiffs would move forward toward trial in the U.S. District Court, focusing on the merits of their case and the question whether the federal government’s energy system, and resulting climate destabilization, is unconstitutional.” Read the full email.
Despite the temporary holdup in that case, climate activists around the world are feeling pretty good about getting positive rulings from courts overall.
It’s becoming clear that, as was the case in the wave of litigation that tobacco companies lost in the 1990s, plaintiffs and their allies are learning more about how to ultimately win every time they finish a case, win or lose.
Fossil fuel companies, for their part, aren’t just following the tobacco companies’ playbooks; they’re actually hiring the very same legal teams that defended the tobacco industry.
Now, I’m no lawyer, but I’m thinking maybe that isn’t the best strategy.
Fighting for Our Lives
Meanwhile, kids have been waiting for the adults in the room to do what’s necessary for a long time, long enough for some of us to become middle-aged adults. Fortunately, the youth of today aren’t afraid to take on the burden. Perhaps more accurately, they’re afraid not to.
Either way, they’re a powerful force for change, they’re here, they’re not happy. And they’re determined to assure the “youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property,” and proper protection of “essential public trust resources.”
Leave it to a bunch of kids.
As for fossil fuel companies, polluters, politicians who enable them and governments that refuse to do the right thing, a few words of advice –
Step up to the bar, grab your ankles and pucker up; it’s just about time to kiss your asses goodbye.
If you’re concerned about global warming, climate change and the need for the world to act quickly, please join the Knights of the Climate Covenant. No costs, no obligations – just a community of people doing whatever we can to address the climate crisis and supporting each other in a world with an overabundance of climate-change deniers.