We Hold These Truths to be Self-Evident

by James Hansen and Sophie Kivlehan (excerpts from video transcript)


I’m Jim Hansen, director of Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions Program at Columbia Univ. Earth Institute, and this is my granddaughter, Sophie.

I’m Sophie Kivlehan. I’m one of 21 young people who, along with my grandfather, filed suit against our government concerning human-caused climate change.

Our government has taken deliberate actions that violate the rights of all people to life, liberty and property. Young people will suffer the most, but all people are affected.

Jim: Yes, let’s talk about two things. First, the lawsuit, because it illustrates how the judiciary can help force the government to do its job–protect the well-being of all citizens.

Second, let’s talk about actions needed by other branches of government, which in the US are the President and Congress. The public must understand what’s needed and demand it. Otherwise financial special interests will make policy.

Sophie: So, starting with the lawsuit: it was filed in the US District Court in Oregon, one level below the US Supreme Court. We, the plaintiffs, allege the federal government is taking actions to aid and encourage extraction and burning of fossil fuels, even though they’re aware of the consequences for climate change and the harm it will cause, especially for young people and future generations. We ask that the Court direct the Defendants to develop a plan to reduce CO2 emissions, at a rate science indicates will stabilize climate and preserve a planet that can sustain our lives.

Jim: The Defendants, the President and various Departments of the US government, were joined by Interveners, the American Petroleum Institute and other fossil fuel interests, in asking the Court to dismiss the case. Judge Aiken, in her Opinion and Order issued Nov. 10, affirms an earlier rejection by Judge Coffin of the Defendants’ request for dismissal – but she does much more. It will be a landmark analysis of government responsibility, with implications that dwarf those of prior court rulings on human-made climate change.

Sophie: The Due Process Claus of the 5th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution bars the government from depriving a person of life, liberty or property without due process of law. We assert that the government is doing exactly that by actively promoting fossil fuel emissions, which cause dangerous climate change. That raises a basic question: are we entitled to a reasonably stable natural climate, not disrupted by humans?

Judge Aiken notes that the Supreme Court cautions that federal courts must exercise utmost care before breaking ground in defining protected rights. Judge Aiken also notes that we allege that government action is damaging the climate system in a way that, among other things, will cause human deaths, widespread damage to property, and dramatically alter the planet’s ecosystem. Judge Aiken concludes we have alleged infringement of a fundamental right.

Jim: She also upheld the Public Trust claim. “Public trust” refers to the fundamental understanding that a government cannot abdicate its core sovereign powers, for example, police powers.

We assert that the public trust includes essential natural resources. The concept that the air, running water, the seashore belong in common to all, Judge Aiken notes, dates to Roman law. It’s a foundation of modern civil law, making its way to the US through English common law. Judges Coffin and Aiken conclude that our public trust claims, to rights regarding the air, running water and the seashore, are fundamental rights “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition.”

Sophie: Judge Aiken’s legal analysis has global significance. The arguments are framed in terms of the US Constitution, but the concepts are similar to those in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN in 1948.

Equal protection of the laws is spelled out in the 14th Amendment and was central to civil rights cases including “Brown versus Board of Education” prohibiting segregation as unconstitutional. I argue that young people also deserve “equal protection.” Old people burn fossil fuels, get the benefits from them, but suffer only moderate consequences, because of the delayed response of the massive climate system. Young people face the potential of irreparable harm. So we’re a bit disappointed Judge Aiken doesn’t draw on the analogy with the civil rights movement. Judge Aiken mentions “equal protection” only in a couple of footnotes. Instead she lumps “equal protection” into “due process,” our claim that we’re being deprived of life, liberty and property. She has a good reason: lawyers for the defense assert that young people and future generations don’t have the right to sue because they’ve never been defined a “suspect class” that can be discriminated against. That issue might cause a long delay, or even defeat our case. Judge Aiken avoids that, by noting we allege a violation of our fundamental right to life, liberty and property.

Jim: [Obama’s false “cap-and-trade” solution] failed to pass in the US. It was imposed in Australia by a liberal government, which was promptly thrown out of office and the tax repealed. Politicians are attracted to cap-and-trade because it is complex and can easily be twisted to pay off special interests. They pretend that it will not increase energy prices.

Sophie: Fossil fuel price needs to rise, so fossil fuels can be phased out rapidly. The economy will be more efficient and stronger if the price of fossil fuels becomes honest, including the costs of air pollution, water pollution and climate change. Those costs now are borne by the public, because the fossil fuel industry uses the atmosphere as a free waste dump.

The way to fix this is to collect a steadily rising carbon fee from the fossil fuel companies. That money should go to the public, not to special interests or the government. If this money is given in equal amount to all people, the person doing better than average in limiting his fossil fuel use will make money.

The dividend can be distributed electronically to a person’s bank account or debit card at regular intervals. This carbon fee-and-dividend is progressive. Wealthy people have a larger carbon footprint, so they may lose money, but they can afford it.

Jim: This revenue-neutral approach stimulates the economy. It spurs energy innovation, modernizes our energy infrastructure, creates jobs and increases GNP. Economic studies show after 10 years it reduces CO2 emissions 30% and more than 50% after 20 years.


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