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Securing the legal right to a healthy atmosphere and stable climate for all present and future generations

youthtakegvtcourtThe next generation isn’t going to wait passively for adults to save them from the consequences of climate change. Some of them are getting on with it themselves.

Last month saw a stirring example.

On International Youth Day, 12th August, 21 young people from across the United States came to Eugene, Oregon, to file a landmark lawsuit against the US government for exploiting fossil fuels. Their ‘Complaint’ alleges that the federal government has violated the constitutional rights to life, liberty and property of the present youngest generation and also of future generations, and has also failed to protect essential public trust resources, by promoting the development and use of fossil fuels – despite knowing for decades that fossil fuels are destroying the climate system.

Their lawsuit is a powerful document. It begins by listing, in emboldened capitals, 42 names: the names not only of the 21 young people but of their 21 guardians, through whom they are legally able to stand as Plaintiffs.

This list is followed by the names of two further Plaintiffs. The first is Earth Guardians, a non-profit organization. The second Plaintiff is – and here’s an amazing concept - ‘Future Generations, through their Guardian, Dr. James Hansen’.

And not just ‘future generations’ in general but also, specifically, his granddaughter. What a wonderful honour, to be officially named ‘the Guardian of Future Generations, and granddaughter’! I can’t think of a better title anywhere in the world.

Dr Hansen, the Adjunct Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, has certainly earned his stripes. He has been sticking his neck out, drawing attention to climate change, especially anthropogenic climate change, ever since the late 1970s. He is famous for speaking truth to power at congressional committees, supporting policies that protect the future for young people and identifying the policies he considers merely greenwash.

After the Plaintiffs, the document lists the Defendants. The first is none other than ‘The United States of America’ itself, and the second is ‘Barack Obama, in his official capacity as President of the United States’. These powerful defendants are followed by a list of senior members of Obama’s government, concluding with Secretary of State John Kerry and the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Gina McCarthy.

The young Plaintiffs are challenging both the national fossil fuel programs and local a LNG export terminal that has been proposed in Coos Bay, Oregon. [LNG is Liquefied Natural Gas - predominantly methane, converted to liquid form for ease of storage or transport.]

The Plaintiffs are seeking a court order requiring the President to implement immediately a national plan to decrease atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide to 350 ppm by the year 2100.

In Dr Hansen’s words: “If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from [current levels] to at most 350 ppm.” The hope is that this would keep the temperature from rising by no more than 2 degrees over the pre-industrial average.

Others would argue that it needs to rise no more than 1.0 -1.5 degrees, given that some parts of the world, like central Africa, experience twice the global average rise. A four degree rise would make the lives of the vulnerable people in these parts of the world even less tenable.

The adults of our generation, the generation that has caused most anthropogenic global warming, have been doing too little, too late, to protect life on Earth as we know it. The kids aren’t pleading with us any more. They’re holding us accountable.

To find out more about this initiative:

To see the ‘Complaint’ in full:

Picture shows Dr. James Hansen, guardian for Future Generations, with his granddaughter and Youth Plaintiff, Sophie.