Climate change: Biden, give the kids their day in court

Many American laws contain an opening section with a “statement of congressional intent” – a brief description of what Congress hopes a particular law will achieve.

They express the best intentions of Congress. Some codify moments of moral clarity that legislators seek to retain in legislation.

However, one important absence at the moment is moral clarity on global climate change. Even as the climate worsened almost everywhere, Congress never passed significant legislation to limit the main cause, fossil fuel pollution. The Clean Air Act allows the government to set some “criteria pollutant”, but the most damaging greenhouse gases are not among them.

The United States entered an international climate treaty in 1992, but despite several promising moments and notable exceptions, Congress approved an aggressive campaign by oil companies to convince Americans that climate change was not real, or at least not as big of a global problem. scientists claim.

Congress has clearly stated itself on environmental protection more generally, notably in its flagship law, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1970. Its opening statement read in part, “It is the continuing policy of the Federal Government … to encourage and promote the common good, to create and maintain conditions in which people and nature can live in productive harmony, and meet the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations of Americans.”

Three things stand out: “Productive harmony” with nature is essential to our well-being, it is a sustainable government responsibility, and we must maintain it for future generations.

This raises two important questions: What are the obligations of the present generation to the future? Is the federal government meeting those obligations with regard to climate change?

As I wrote a year ago in a different place, “There are 6,653 words in America’s most important founding documents: the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence. The words of children, future, and generations are not included in it. The idea of ​​protecting the unborn generation is implied only once, where the Preamble to the Constitution says that the purpose of the document is to ensure peace and promote the general welfare of “ourselves and our posterity.”

Jovan Kurbalija, Ph.D., an expert on international law, argues that the rights of future generations have evolved from philosophical and moral issues to become political and legal issues because no previous generation has been so threatened by an existential crisis. He suggests intergenerational rights are made up of three parts: physical survival, human dignity and the ability to use our creative potential – inalienable rights that the Declaration of Independence calls the “pursuit of happiness.”

President Theodore Roosevelt wrote that rights to natural resources (he spoke of wild game) extend to future generations “in the womb of time.”

“Our duty to all, including the unborn generation, asks us to restrain today’s unprincipled minority from wasting the legacy of this unborn generation,” he wrote in 1916. Today, the sin of waste extends to natural resources such as required. for a habitable planet — healthy soil, oceans, air, water, and so on.

Several states – Pennsylvania, Montana and Massachusetts, for example – have established the inalienable legal right of unborn generations to a healthy environment. The Constitution of Montana says, “The state and every person must maintain and promote a clean and healthy environment … for present and future generations.” He ordered his legislature to protect “environmental life support systems from degradation.”

Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Washington and West Virginia create similar constitutional protections. A movement called the “Green Amendment for Generations” encourages all states to establish equal rights in their constitutions.

On the federal front, a group of 21 children and young adults have been fighting their way through the federal court system for nearly seven years to establish that young Americans have a constitutional right to a future without catastrophic climate change. their lawsuit, Juliana v. US, has reached out to the presidencies of Obama, Trump and Biden. More than 80 million Americans aged 19 and under, plus countless future Americans, will benefit from the right.

With the help of soft-spoken attorney Julia Olson, the Juliana family is stubbornly engaged in an asymmetrical war against legal goliaths, the US Department of Justice. But like his predecessors, Biden’s Justice Department appears to be doing everything in its power to prevent the lawsuit from being brought to trial. For one thing, the oil industry and others involved in lengthy misinformation campaigns about global warming can stand in a place where misinformation would constitute perjury.

This case has implications for present and future generations far beyond the United States. Last year, the United Nations Children’s Fund reported that half of the world’s 2.2 billion children live in countries at very high risk from global warming. Psychologists say they see evidence among children of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, phobias, sleep disorders, attachment disorders and substance abuse resulting in problems in cognition, learning, behavior and academic performance.

Today, two outstanding documentaries — “The Power of Big Oil” and “Youth v Gov” — show the history of the oil industry’s campaigns against oil and gas. Juliana lawsuit, respectively. Both provide important context.

However, Julianas deserves more than a documentary. They deserve their day in court, where they can put the government and the oil industry on a stand. They also deserve an immediate response from President Biden. He had to let their lawsuit go to court or explain why he didn’t want to. With his climate plans stalled in Congress, you’d think he’d welcome the chance, however small, that the courts would come to the rescue.

William S. Becker is the former regional director of the US Department of Energy’s center for managing energy efficiency and renewable energy technology programs, and he also serves as a special assistant secretary of the department of energy efficiency and renewable energy. Becker is also executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project, a nonpartisan initiative founded in 2007 that works with national thought leaders to develop recommendations for the White House and House and Senate committees on climate and energy policy. This project is not affiliated with the White House.

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