“Biggest Case on the Planet” Pits Kids vs. Climate Change
By Laura Parker
Levi Draheim is a nine-year-old science geek. He founded an environmental club as a fourth grader and gives talks about climate change to audiences of grown-ups. His home is on a slender barrier island on Florida’s Atlantic coast, 21 miles south of Cape Canaveral and a five-minute walk from the beach. By mid-century, his sandy childhood playground could be submerged by rising seas. He will be just 42.
Nathan Baring is 17 and a high school junior in Fairbanks, Alaska—120 miles south of the Arctic Circle. He loves cold weather and skis. The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. Now winter snows that Baring once celebrated as early as August in Fairbanks can hold off until November.
By 2050, Arctic sea ice will have virtually disappeared, and temperatures in the interior, surrounding Fairbanks, will have risen by an additional 2 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit, altering the boreal forest ecosystem. Nathan will be 50.
“I can deal with a few days of rain in February when it’s supposed to be 40 below,” he says. “But I can’t deal with the idea that what my parents experienced and what I have experienced will not exist for my children. I am a winter person. I won’t sit idly by and watch winter vanish.”
Baring and Draheim so lack confidence that they will inherit a healthy planet that they are suing the United States government for failing to adequately protect the Earth from the effects of climate change. They are among a group of 21 youths who claim the federal government’s promotion of fossil fuel production and its indifference to the risks posed by greenhouse gas emissions have resulted in “a dangerous destabilizing climate system” that threatens the survival of future generations. That lapse violates, the court papers argue, their fundamental constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property. The lawsuit also argues that the government violated the public trust doctrine, a legal concept grounded in ancient law that holds the government is responsible for protecting public resources, such as land and water—or in this case, the climate system—for public use.
The kids’ lawsuit was joined by acclaimed NASA climate scientist James Hansen, who began studying climate change in the 1970s and whose granddaughter, Sophie, is among the 21 young plaintiffs.
“In my opinion, this lawsuit is made necessary by the at-best schizophrenic, if not suicidal nature of U.S. climate and energy policy,” he told the court.
Last fall, U.S. District Court Judge Anne Aiken agreed with the youths’ claim. Her sweeping 54-page opinion laid the foundation for what looks to be a groundbreaking trial later this year. In her ruling, Aiken established, in effect, a new right for these children and teens: a right to expect they could live in a stable climate.
“I have 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.”
She made clear that “this lawsuit is not about proving that climate change is happening or that human activity is driving it. For purposes of this motion, those facts are undisputed.”
And Aikens added: “Federal courts too often have been cautious and overly deferential in the arena of environmental law and the world has suffered for it.”
Mary Wood, a University of Oregon environmental law professor who pioneered the concept that the atmosphere should be treated as part of the public trust, calls the lawsuit “the biggest case on the planet.”
“This claim challenges the government’s entire fossil-fuel philosophy. The whole thing,” Wood says. “The scientists, on the other hand, are saying if we continue on our path without drastic cuts in carbon dioxide emissions, we are going to leave a barren planet that will not support broad human survival. You could not get claims more grave than that.”