Monday, March 04, 2019

Juliana Vs. United States - Possibly The Most Consequential Court Case in U.S. History

CBS 60 Minutes aired a piece on Climate Change last night. If you have 14 minutes to spend learning a little about the history of climate science and policy in the United States it would be worthwhile to watch.

Some of the key points -

- At it's most basic level this is a case pitting young people concerned about the future of the planet against old people who are willing to gamble with young people's futures to maintain the status quo.

- Julia Olson, an Oregon lawyer, and the executive director of a non-profit legal organization called "Our Children's Trust" began constructing the case eight years ago. She represents twenty one young people who each have stories of how they have been harmed by climate change and will eventually testify at trial.

- Her team has constructed a timeline of what and when past U.S. administrations knew about the connection between fossil fuels and climate change. The timeline goes back over 50 years, beginning with the presidency of Lyndon Johnson in 1965 when the administration was made aware that climate change was a catastrophic threat. Every president since Johnson has been aware of the fact that burning fossil fuels was causing climate change.

- Fifty years of evidence has been amassed by Olson and her team, 36,000 pages in all, to be used in court.

- The legal proceedings have required the government to make some startling admissions in court filings. It now acknowledges that human activity - in particular, elevated concentrations of greenhouse gases - is likely to have been the dominant cause of observed warming since the mid-1900s… That global carbon dioxide concentrations reached levels unprecedented for at least 2.6 million years… That climate change is increasing the risk of loss of life and the extinction of many species and is associated with increases in hurricane intensity, the frequency of intense storms, heavy precipitation, the loss of sea ice and rising sea levels. And the government acknowledges that climate change's effects on agriculture will have consequences for food scarcity.

- In response to a government attempt to have the case dismissed, Judge Ann Aiken wrote, "Exercising my reasoned judgment, I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society."

- The Trump administration, which is now defending the case, has done everything it can to keep the trial from going forward. It's appealed Judge Aiken's decision three times to the ninth circuit court in California and twice to the Supreme Court. Each time it's failed.

- Julie Olson says, "The government doesn't want the case to go to trial because they will lose on the evidence that will be presented at trial. They know that once you enter that courtroom and your witnesses take the oath to tell the truth and nothing but the truth the facts are the facts and alternative facts are perjury. And so, all of these claims and tweets about climate change not being real, that doesn't hold up in a court of law."

- The next oral arguments in Juliana v. United States are scheduled for June in Portland.


The online after-show interviews are worth watching if you have time. James Hanson's granddaughter is part of the lawsuit. James Hanson was the NASA scientist who warned Congress about the consequences of human caused climate change over 30 years ago and who's predictions have borne out since that time.

Climate change and how society deals with it are extremely complex issues. Most people like to be able to afford to heat their homes and many people have no choice but to drive to and from work. The nations food supply is heavily dependent on the use of fossil fuels. There are legitimate concerns about causing economic upheaval with misguided attempts to stop using fossil fuels without viable plans to deal with the fallout of changing our sources of energy.

On the other hand as Julia Olson says in the 60 Minutes episode, "If we don't address climate change in this country, economists across the board say that we are in for economic crises that we have never seen before."


We will never get anywhere if the debate doesn't include some simple ground rules -

- Agreement on a set of scientifically verifiable facts agreed to by the vast majority of scientists working in the field
- Arguments cannot include finger pointing and charges of hypocrisy aimed at the other side. We are all hypocrites and there are no "sides" when the question is if we want a planet that is habitable for future generations.
- Criticizing a plan to address climate change is not sufficient. Critics must also articulate their alternative plans to address climate change. Ignorance, hand waving, denying science or sticking your head in the sand are not considered viable alternate plans.

The United States needs a massive public service education campaign to inform citizens about what scientists have to tell us about climate change impacting the natural world and what the future will look like if we elect to do nothing. I'm not so sure human nature isn't inclined to do nothing and deal with the consequences as they occur...but at least people will be making an informed decision.