Climate Advocates Sue In Federal Court Claiming Government Has A Duty Not To Kill Its Citizens

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Last week, the annual National Climate Report stated that all the increase in average global temperatures since 1950 is attributable to human activity. This week, a lawsuit has been filed in federal court in Philadelphia claiming the federal government has a duty to protect its citizens from injury or death due to climate change. The plaintiffs are the Clean Air Council, Philadelphia’s oldest environmental non-profit, and two minors who live in the Philadelphia area. The named defendants include president Donald Trump, the Department of Energy, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, the Environmental Protection Agency, and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.

climate change from pollutionAccording to the Center For International Environmental Law (CIEL), the lawsuit claims that “Trump’s campaign of climate rollbacks and reliance on junk science pose a direct danger to US citizens. The plaintiffs assert that Trump’s reversals of existing climate protections exacerbate the threat of climate change, creating an imminent risk of harm for themselves and other citizens.”

Carroll Muffett, president of CIEL,  released a statement saying, “While the US government’s actions on climate change prior to this Administration fall far short of what is needed, they provide a baseline level of protection that cannot and must not be reversed. In Juliana v. US, the federal district court found that plaintiffs have a protected constitutional interest in a livable climate and that the government has a duty to protect that interest.

“Despite admitting the urgent realities of the climate crisis, the Trump Administration continues its campaign to eviscerate vital climate protections and destroy the scientific tools needed to assess, reduce, and respond to climate risks. From undermining the Paris Agreement to dismantling vital climate satellites to jettisoning guidance on climate and infrastructure, the defendants have demonstrated a reckless disregard for the lives, livelihoods, and rights of US residents and people around the world. In so doing, they have created a clear violation of fundamental rights that can and should be urgently addressed by the courts.”

But will the courts do so? Congress is busy confirming the most extreme right wing judicial nominees it can find. Neil Gorsuch, the newest member of the US Supreme Court, who was confirmed thanks to extraordinary parliamentary maneuvering by Mitch McConnell, has yet to make his position known on many issues, but he wouldn’t be on the court if McConnell was not convinced he would faithfully uphold all the tenets of current conservative thinking. Gorsuch gave an address to a conservative group meeting at the Trump International Hotel in New York in September.

Clean Air Council executive director and chief counsel Joseph Minott said in a statement about the law suit: “We will not stand idly by while President Trump and his agencies raze crucial environmental protections, ignore climate science, dispute well-documented facts and force future generations of Americans to suffer the consequences of this administration’s reckless choices and ignorant policies. We must hold the federal government accountable for the long-term environmental harm that is propagating under its direction. It’s time to fight back.”

The idea that carbon dioxide emissions and other atmospheric pollutants would lead to warmer temperatures is not new. 50 years ago this month, the American Association For The Advancement Of Science told then president Lyndon Johnson about the dangers of increased pollution levels. Some would say that the courts are ill-equipped to deal with political considerations, but what options remain if the political process fails to protect the nation’s citizens from imminent harm?

A safe bet is that the Supreme Court will duck the whole thing. If the lower courts fail to craft a remedy that protects the plaintiffs, the Supremes will say, “Yup, the courts have issued their ruling and that’s good enough for us.” If the lower courts find in favor of the plaintiffs, a 5-member majority will find the lower court exceeded its authority and simply brush the result aside. The fate of the United States will be decided by one unelected person. The options for the citizenry if that happens are considerably less hopeful and fraught with enormous danger.

The notion that a government would deliberately fail to protect its citizens from harm is so bizarre as to stagger the imagination, yet that is the current situation in the United States. The wonder is that people continue to vote for representatives who have every intention of inflicting grievous bodily harm upon them. “Curiouser and curiouser,” said Alice.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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