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November 16, 2016

The lawsuit


November 16, 2016

Donald Trump’s election to the presidency is a devastating blow to the environmental community, coming at a crucial juncture in the fight against climate change. As Rebecca Leber and Ben Adler write for Grist, nearly all of President Barack Obama's climate legacy probably will be undone in the Trump administration. With both Congress and the presidency in the hands of people who claim not to believe in climate science and federal agencies soon to be headed by officials with ties to the fossil fuel industry, environmental activists have few places where they can turn to pressure government to strengthen our national climate agenda.

If Trump fulfills his promise to pull the US out of the Paris climate agreement, America will become the only major polluter in the world to declare its unwillingness to work with an international community trying to stop climate change and alleviate the damage that's already been done.

But a ruling yesterday by a federal judge in Eugene, Oregon, could provide an avenue for climate action via the courts. Judge Ann Aiken ruled that 21 young Americans can proceed to trial in a suit against the Obama administration. The suit alleges that the government has known about climate change for decades but failed to address it, denying these children and teenagers their right to a safe future.

The key part of Aiken's ruling is that last bit: The assertion that young people have a legal right to a stable climate. There is “no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society,” Aiken wrote. “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.”

The lawsuit targets President Obama, but as of Jan. 20, the new president, Donald Trump, will become the defendant.

In Marrakech, UN officials are meeting this week to work on the Paris agreement. Still reeling from the US election results, some in attendance saw the Oregon news as a ray of hope. “This is a remarkable opinion,” Jeffrey Sachs, director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, told reporters.

Sachs urged Obama to stop fighting the lawsuit and shore up some of his climate legacy. “Settle this lawsuit; bring judiciary into oversight as a fundamental duty,” he said. “It’s the last opportunity for the Obama administration to get this right?-?and if they continue to challenge this suit in their last days, shame on them.”

Were the Obama administration to offer a settlement and the young plaintiffs accepted it, the judicial system would then be responsible for insuring that the Trump White House put the terms of that settlement into effect. “This is Obama’s last chance to make climate progress before the Trump administration unravels everything he’s done,” Wood said.

Julia Olson, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, suggested that, among other options, the Obama administration could propose curtailing or shutting down fossil fuel extraction in the US. Such a settlement would result in a court order that the Trump administration would then have to abide by - it could attempt to overturn the order, but that could take years.

She is confident the plaintiffs would have an advantage over the future Trump administration, largely because any witnesses who deny climate change would likely not be acceptable to the court. “Donald Trump has said that climate change is a hoax.” Olson noted. “So for Donald Trump to come to the court and bring a climate denialism set of facts won’t fly for two reasons: One, you can’t perjure yourself in a court of law, and, two, any expert you bring in to testify before the judge has to be qualified as an expert by the court. They will not be able to come into that courtroom and bring their climate denialism agenda.”


This article has been excerpted from: ‘The Lawsuit That Could Save The Planet’.



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