Guest essay by Eric Worrall
Federal court Justice Thomas Coffin has ruled that child plaintiffs suing the Federal Government have a right to put their case, that the US Government has a constitutional obligation to reduce CO2 emissions. But the consequences of this case may go far beyond an economically damaging change to US internal policy. If the plaintiffs win, what will the USA be obligated to do, if the “harmful” CO2 is mostly emitted by other countries?
In the first lawsuit to involve a planet, Judge Thomas Coffin of the United States Federal District Court in Eugene, Oregon, ruled on Friday in favor of twenty-one plaintiffs, ages 8 to 19, on behalf of future generations of Americans in a landmark constitutional climate change case brought against the Federal Government and the Fossil FOSL -1.91% Fuel Industry.
The lawsuit alleges that the Federal Government is violating the Plaintiffs’ constitutional and public trust rights by promoting the use of fossil fuels. The Complaint explains that, for over fifty years, the United States Government and the Fossil Fuel Industry have known that carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels causes global warming and dangerous climate change, and that continuing to burn fossil fuels destabilizes the climate system.
Judge Coffin wrote: “The debate about climate change and its impact has been before various political bodies for some time now. Plaintiffs give this debate justiciability by asserting harms that befall or will befall them personally and to a greater extent than older segments of society. It may be that eventually the alleged harms, assuming the correctness of plaintiffs’ analysis of the impacts of global climate change, will befall all of us. But the intractability of the debates before Congress and state legislatures and the alleged valuing of short-term economic interest despite the cost to human life, necessitates a need for the courts to evaluate the constitutional parameters of the action or inaction taken by the government. This is especially true when such harms have an alleged disparate impact on a discrete class of society.”
The full text of Judge Coffin’s finding is here.
There is still a long way to go for the plaintiffs to win their case – Judge Coffin simply ruled that the plaintiffs have a right to have their case heard, and rejected actions by the Federal Government and Fossil Fuel industry associations to immediately dismiss the case.
However, it is probably worth considering the horrifying possibilities if the plaintiffs win their case.
Given that, according to Judge Coffin’s finding, the plaintiffs posit that the USA only produces around 25% of global CO2 emissions, a figure which is falling rapidly, what would the courts require the US Government to do, if the courts find the US government has a constitutional duty to reduce CO2 emissions?
Would the federal government have discharged its obligations, if they force US controlled territories to abandon fossil fuels? Even though this would make very little difference in the long run to global CO2 emissions?
Or would the Federal Government be placed under a constitutional obligation to force other countries to reduce their CO2 emissions as well, in order to protect US citizens from the alleged harms of CO2?
What if the rest of the world says no, and rejects US requests to reduce CO2? Or if the rest of the world agrees to a US request to reduce CO2 emissions, but does not honour that agreement?
This is not the first time such a ridiculous situation has arisen. In an interview in 2013, while discussing the weaknesses of climate models, Hans Von Storch, one of the giants of German Climate Science, and very much an advocate of climate action, discussed a German push to create a constitutional obligation to reduce CO2 emissions.
SPIEGEL: Will the greenhouse effect be an issue in the upcoming German parliamentary elections? Singer Marius Müller-Westernhagen is leading a celebrity initiative calling for the addition of climate protection as a national policy objective in the German constitution.
Storch: It’s a strange idea. What state of the Earth’s atmosphere do we want to protect, and in what way? And what might happen as a result? Are we going to declare war on China if the country emits too much CO2 into the air and thereby violates our constitution?
SPIEGEL: Yet it was climate researchers, with their apocalyptic warnings, who gave people these ideas in the first place.
Storch: Unfortunately, some scientists behave like preachers, delivering sermons to people. What this approach ignores is the fact that there are many threats in our world that must be weighed against one another. If I’m driving my car and find myself speeding toward an obstacle, I can’t simple yank the wheel to the side without first checking to see if I’ll instead be driving straight into a crowd of people. Climate researchers cannot and should not take this process of weighing different factors out of the hands of politics and society.
The plaintiffs are being advised by ex NASA GISS Director James Hansen, who appears to seriously believe that the world is on the brink of catastrophic runaway global warming. In this context, perhaps the plaintiffs and their advisor are aware of the terrifying potential of creating a constitutional obligation to wage global warfare, but believe that a bit of geopolitical brinkmanship is a risk worth taking, in order to “save the planet”.