Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The kids call us out – Filing lawsuits for science-based climate recovery

It’s time for everyone who works on climate or cares about it to admit the truth – We can’t say we are protecting our children’s future unless we are doing what science says we must do to recover climate stability.  And we are not.  So far, everything we are doing or proposing is falling far short. 

Fortunately, the kids are calling us out and making it impossible to ignore the facts.  Twenty-one youths filed an Oregon US District Court lawsuit last Wednesday seeking a court order “declaring that the Federal Government has violated and is continuing to violate the fundamental constitutional rights of youth and future generations to life, liberty, property, and public trust resources by causing dangerous CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere and dangerous government interference with a stable climate system . . .”

That is from the case summary issued by Our Children’s Trust, a Eugene, Oregon-based group leading youth climate legal efforts across the world.  That includes state actions in Washington, Oregon, Massachusetts, Colorado and North Carolina, and proceedings in eight other nations.   In one of those, The Netherlands, a judge in June ordered carbon reductions of 25% by 2020, setting a pattern for the world. (Cascadia Planet has covered the Washington lawsuit, and will dive deeper into the legal wrangling between the suit and a carbon cap rulemaking ordered by the governor in a coming blog post.)

The youth want the court to order “the Federal Government to protect these constitutional rights by significantly reducing our nation’s CO2 emissions through implementation of a science-based climate recovery plan,” says the summary.

Scientist James Hansen and granddaughter Sophie, one of the plaintiffs in a climate lawsuit against the federal government. 
Their demands are uncompromising, and based in science developed by James Hansen and his team.  Arguably the world’s leading climate scientist, Hansen’s analysis and projections have proven remarkably accurate.  Hansen’s science comes down to the basic physics of atmospheric energy imbalance.  Global warming is all about greenhouse gases trapping solar heat as it reflects back from the planet’s surface.  We know precisely how much heat will be captured based on the amount of greenhouse gases concentrated in the atmosphere.  Carbon dioxide, the most powerful and long-lasting greenhouse gas, at 400 parts per million catches an excess of 0.6 watts on average for every square meter on the planet’s surface.  

Hansen notes this figure in his expert testimony for the lawsuit, adding,  “. . . I am uncertain whether this conveys to the Court the scale of what is going on . . . Earth’s energy imbalance is equivalent to exploding more than 400,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs per day, 365 days per year . . . because of our use of the atmosphere as a waste dump for our carbon pollution.” 

For kids 8-19 years old, the range of the 21 in the suit, that’s a lot of Hiroshimas coming in their lifetimes. Restoring the balance, stopping those 400,000 nukes from exploding every day for the rest of their lives, requires returning CO2 to 350 parts per million.  (That is where the 350.org network gets its name.) Dr. Hansen’s prescription is the 6% solution.  We must immediately commence carbon emissions reductions of 6% each year until the end of the century.  Timing is crucial. If we wait until 2020 to begin emissions reductions the annual requirement is 15% per year.  Along with dramatic emissions reductions we must tip the balance from deforestation to reforestation.  We must draw 100 billion tonnes of carbon out of the atmosphere this century, storing it as biocarbon in trees, other plants and soils through changed forestry and agriculture practices.

That is the science-based climate recovery plan that the 21 youths are asking the federal government to implement, based not on any new law but on existing constitutional rights guarantees. Hansen, himself the grandfather of one of the plaintiffs, testified, “this lawsuit is made necessary by the at-best schizophrenic, if not suicidal, nature of U.S. climate and energy policy.” 

The Our Children’s Trust summary notes, “For over fifty years, the Federal Government has known that carbon dioxide pollution from burning fossil fuels was causing global warming and dangerous climate change, and that continuing to burn fossil fuels would destabilize the climate system on which present and future generations of our nation depend for their well being and survival. Despite this full knowledge, the Federal Government has allowed and promoted the development and use of fossil fuels, thus increasing the concentration of CO2 emissions in the atmosphere to unsafe levels and creating the dangerous climate change and ocean acidification that we face today.”

President Obama’s recent approval of Arctic drilling by Shell Oil is a poster for schizoid behavior. The lawsuit provides another Oregon-based instance of federal schizophrenia, approval of a liquefied natural gas export terminal at Jordan Cove, and asks a reversal of the permitting. 

Hansen’s testimony cites horrendous implications of continuing on the current suicidal pathway.  Two in particular stand out. One is the near certainty that if we continue, sea levels will rise 16-30 feet, drowning hundreds of coastal cities and creating hundreds of millions of climate refugees.  The other is a great extinction – 9-31% of species wiped out with total global warming of 1.6° C.  That is only 0.7°C over the warming that has already taken place.  Half of all species could go extinct with total warming of 2.9°C. 

On the other hand, if we implement the 6% solution with 100 billion tonnes of biocarbon storage, we can hold total temperature increase to not much above 1°C, saving untold numbers of species and preventing tremendous amounts of grief for our species. That means our own children and generations to come.  

There is really no excuse anymore.  Especially not among those who call ourselves climate advocates.  To not be pushing for the level of carbon reductions that science clearly indicates is simply another form of climate science denial. It is more insidious than the outright climate denial practiced by fossil fuel industry front groups, because it claims to acknowledge the science when in fact it ignores the full implications.

To continue pushing aside science in the name of political “realism” calls out a phrase invented by journalist I.F. Stone during the Cold War to describe those who thought they could plan a winnable nuclear war.  He called them “crackpot realists.”  It is similarly crackpot to think we can plot a realistic climate pathway that allows those 400,000 Hiroshimas and more to go off each day for centuries to come.  And centuries of global warming beyond 2100 is the implication of climate policies now being considered at state, national and international levels.   That goes for plans and goals expected to come out of the upcoming U.N. Paris climate summit, now not even sufficient to hold warming within the scientifically outdated 2°C formerly considered the safety limit. 

We are doing nothing less than betraying our kids and their future by not forcefully pressing the 6% solution and the accompanying 100 billion-tonne growth in biocarbon that are called for by science.  Fortunately, the kids won’t let us alone.  They are pressing their fundamental rights in court. They possess both scientific solid ground and the moral high ground.  They are the real climate leaders.  It is time we join with them to truly protect their future and call for climate recovery plans that are based in science.  In good conscience, we can aim for nothing less. 


  1. This is the most important action on this issue I've ever seen. Congratulations to these kids and hoping for more court victories to come! Maybe this will move the "grown ups" who will be meeting at the end of the year to come up with a PLAN! I'm sharing this in as many places as I can think of.

  2. Patrick, your post is once again spot on.

    Readers can support the work of Our Children's Trust here: http://ourchildrenstrust.org/donate.

  3. We could each practice the 6% solution at home. It's super easy for the first few years, (go vegetarian, eliminate your tailpipe, get your house tightened up and quit buying stuff) but once you've cut your carbon footprint in half it gets harder.

    1. Right. That's why it's important for us all to work on the political as well as the personal side of the problem. The climate crisis is at root a public policy failure. The 6% reduction is much easier to maintain when the stuff we actually need has a lower and lower carbon footprint each year.

      Fortunately, there are productive things we can do to help bring about the public policy shift we desperately need. In Washington, you can gather signatures for I-732, which provides revenue-neutral tax reform that will cause carbon-based energy to more accurately reflect its true cost. Nationally and internationally, you can work with Citizens' Climate Lobby to enact public policy that the best models of our national economy suggest will effect a rapid transition to a low-carbon future.

  4. Great work!

    This part sounded odd to me, though: "We must immediately commence carbon emissions reductions of 6% each year until the end of the century. Timing is crucial. If we wait until 2020 to begin emissions reductions the annual requirement is 15% per year."

    I don't understand why 5 years delay would require so much more stringent reductions. I did some math, and figured that either this wrongly assumes 20% yearly growth in emissions for the next 5 years, or there are outside factors that get tangled up into this, that I know nothing about. Can anyone help me with this?

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