We The People

Earth Guardians is a Colorado-based non-profit organization of young people with members across five continents. See how they are challenging how the government sustains human life.

By Judith Stapleton

siblings leaning against tree

EARTH GUARDIANS—Rising Up! This is going to be the trial of the century!

Earth Guardians is a Colorado-based non-profit organization of young people with members across five continents. Twenty-one of those who are American citizens are exercising their Constitutional rights to a future that includes a chance to reach a normal adulthood. Their claim is as serious as a heart attack, and could well lead the children of other countries to sue their governments for a callous disregard of the conditions required for life.

Appropriately, it was on August 12 last year, International Youth Day, that the suit was filed against a government failing in every respect to protect American Constitutional rights to life through its promotion of the use and development of fossil fuels. In response, the U.S. Government joined with the fossil fuel industry in a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. But in November, Judge Ann Aiken, District of Oregon, issued an opinion and order denying their request. This was an historic ruling.

Judge Aiken said: “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.”

“This decision is one of the most significant in our nation’s history,” said Julia Olson, counsel for the plaintiffs and executive director of Our Children’s Trust.

Even as newly elected President Donald Trump promised “unfettered fossil fuel extraction,” youth Director of Earth Guardians and one of the plaintiffs, 16-year old Xiuhtezcatl Tonatiuh Martinez, of Colorado, made their judicial motivations clear:

“The federal government has known for decades that CO2 pollution from burning fossil fuels was causing global warming and dangerous climate change. It also knew that continuing to burn fossil fuels would destabilize our climate system, significantly harming my generation and generations to come. Despite knowing these dangers, the defendants did nothing to prevent this harm. In fact, my Government increased the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere to levels it knew were unsafe.

This lawsuit is not about the fossil fuel industry and global warming. It is about the human right to life and liberty on a planet where a “free and ordered society” is possible. The whole diagnosis of “liberty” will move under the microscope with this trial. And in light of President Trump’s edicts during his first weeks in office, we will be a long time in the lab.

The most widely used instrument in the whole field of science—the microscope—is exactly the right one to employ, metaphorically, in this task. For it is the scientific method itself that is under attack by the new U.S. Administration and its minions. The very idea that evidence doesn’t matter fuels the chaos of each new pronouncement from the White House, whether it concerns immigration or financial regulations or renewing the coal industry. We are seeing the same corruption of power that all tyrants assume.

White-collar criminologist, William K. Black, author of The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One, teaches economics and law at the University of Missouri Kansas City (UMKC), and has a long list of experience in litigation against institutional fraud. In a recent interview Black says, “What you have to understand is people like Trump and the people he’s put in his cabinet hate the rule of law. The rule of law is the only thing that can bring them down. And throughout their careers they’ve been able to simply cut through the law with impunity because of their political contributions…] And those are the people, and that is the mentality that is in power now.”

Peaceful petition-signing by concerned citizens, and even mass action by environmental groups, is never going to be effective against a climate-denying, self-serving egomaniac and his courtiers, all of whom imagine they live on a different planet from the rest of us. But it was the Obama administration that had the fossil fuel industry join the government in an effort to overwhelm the children and frighten them off the legal path. Quite likely, an administration under Hillary Clinton would have taken up this baton, and run with it.

The issue of genuine liberty and the common good is not a plank in any powerful political party’s platform. Judge Aiken made this socio-political reality clear: “[The defendants and intervenors] are correct that plaintiffs likely could not obtain the relief they seek through citizen suits brought under the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act or other environmental laws. But that argument misses the point. This action is of a different order than the typical environmental case. It alleges that defendants’ actions and inactions—whether or not they violate any specific statutory duty— have so profoundly damaged our home planet that they threaten plaintiffs’ fundamental constitutional rights to life and liberty.”

This generation of children has the most to lose in a future without the essential elements for life—water, air, a livable climate, and the optimism required for the pursuit of happiness—and these kidwarriors will not be hiding under their desks!

The Atomic Scientists (including 15 Nobel Laureates), whose research and monitoring of the conditions for life on the planet, have just moved the Doomsday Clock another half minute to midnight. In its most recent annual announcement, the Science and Security Board of the Atomic Bulletin warned:

“The probability of global catastrophe is very high, and the actions needed to reduce the risks of disaster must be taken very soon. [In 2017, we find the danger to be even greater, the need for action more urgent. It is two and a half minutes to midnight, the Clock is ticking, global danger looms. Wise public officials should act immediately, guiding humanity away from the brink. If they do not, wise citizens must step forward and lead the way.”

This dire assessment is informed by a convergence of conditions, all of which are controlled and exacerbated by the U.S. government, and all of which are at stake in the outcome of this trial.

The Cold War conditions of threat to life on earth—conditions that trained school children of the 1960s to “hide under their desks”—arose from the build-up of nuclear weapons in the Soviet and American corners of the sandbox of international politics. By late1989, forty-four years after Winston Churchill’s famous “Iron Curtain” speech, the Berlin Wall fell, symbolically ending the Cold War. The following year, one Eastern European country after another (Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania) freed itself from Soviet control and, by refusing to resist this diffusion, Mikhail Gorbachev halted the ideological battle for Europe, and significantly diminished the risk of all-out nuclear war.

Yet, even as the number of nuclear warheads has diminished, (there are now about 5,000 each in the U.S. and Russia), more countries have them, and these include China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea.

But it is not just the weapons that pose nuclear threat. In this industry, nuclear-material security is poor worldwide, and theft, loss, regulation violation, and contamination are common. In the U.S. alone, between 2010 and 2015 there were 58 such security breaches. Further risk results from pathetically poor storage of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium. In fact, Russia and the U.S. alone have about 2,000 metric tons of nuclear material stored—leaking into groundwater and oceans, fracked crevices and soil—a heartbeat away from spreading even more uncontrollably in an earthquake or tsunami or hurricane.

The conditions of threat posed by sea-level rise are widely recognized not just in the island nations forced to relinquish their sovereignty and completely relocate (think all of Micronesia and Tuvalu), but in the infrastructure planning of all urban centres anywhere near a coastline (think New York, Vancouver, New Orleans, Miami). Low-elevation areas are home to 634 million people—roughly 1 in 10. The effects are well underway. In and around Miami, for the last several years, saltwater seeping in from the ocean has been spreading west, fouling underground freshwater supplies that provide most of South Florida’s drinking water, and collapsing roads and building foundations.

The NASA chart that tracks sea-level rise showed an increase of almost twenty feet from 2010 to 2014. As of springtime last year, the reported rate of change of sea-level rise was 3.4 mm per year. This rise will only increase in rate, not decrease —at lease until all the polar ice has melted.

According to NASA, in 1996 the extent of Arctic sea ice was almost 8 million square kilometres. In 2014 it was 5 million. The National Snow & Ice Data Centre Arctic sea ice extent for December 2016 was the second lowest December extent in the satellite record.

The particular planetary condition that fuels the Earth Guardians’ lawsuit is the level of atmospheric Carbon Dioxide. NASA and NOAA track CO2 levels in parts per million (ppm). In 2006, CO2 levels were 382 ppm. Last year they were over the alarm threshold of 400 ppm, namely 406 ppm.

In the most recent update from the Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), analysis of global temperature (GISTEMP) finds 2016 to be the warmest year in the instrumental record. (More detail is available at http://data.giss.nasa.gov/gistemp/ and http://www.columbia.edu/~mhs119/).

There is no time for delusional political manoeuvring. Climatologist James E. Hansen of the Goddard Institute has joined his 16 year old granddaughter as plaintiffs in the Earth Guardians’ law suit. “This is a critical step toward solution of the climate problem and none to soon as climate change is accelerating,” he said. “Now we must ask the court to require the government to reduce fossil fuel emissions at a rate consistent with the science.”

For 17-year-old plaintiff Victoria Barrett, from White Plains, New York, “It’s clear Judge Aiken gets what’s at stake for us. Our planet and our generation don’t have time to waste. If we continue on our current path, my school in Manhattan will be underwater in 50 years. We are moving to trial and I’m looking forward to having the world see the incredible power my generation holds. We are going to put our nation on a science based path toward climate stabilization.”

Long before the Trump Administration appointments began, it was clear the U.S. government and the fossil fuel industry have a hand-in-glove relationship that gives both parties the warm wealth of the palm not-so-discretely covered by the glove of legality, and both parties would apparently rather sacrifice their children’s futures than curtail their shared grasp of this particular source of their power.

For Michael Brune, Executive Director of the Sierra Club, “If the U.S. continues to approve new gas pipelines and power plants and if the majority of politicians continue to spread the falsehood that gas is a clean fuel, we will fail to meet our climate commitments and put our future and our children’s future in peril from the climate crisis…] This isn’t building a bridge to a cleaner future; it’s building a super-highway to climate disaster.”

As President Trump paves the way for personal aggrandizement through nepotism and bellicosity, the courts will be the one sane domain in which justice, evidence, and good sense may prevail. The fossil fuels industry is the most powerful lobby in the United States, and perhaps in the world. In this light, it is worth noting that, from Kandahar Airfield, fuel is flown to Forward Operating Bases at $300 a litre. War is great for the oil and gas industry. And on this front, there is no end in sight.

Outside the justice system, there are very few avenues free of randomly placed civil rights landmines.

But Americans have been warned about this sort of thing at least since the founding fathers drafted the Constitution. In 1975, Senator Frank Church, chairman of the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, was interviewed on NBC. He said then: “If this government ever became a tyranny, if a dictator ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelli-gence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny and there would be no way to fight back because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no matter how privately it was done, is within the reach of the government to know.”

Even in efforts to protect the environment, this open conduit of the internet has become the biggest threat to individuals and groups who engage in protest and civil disobedience because, as Edward Snowden has made all too clear, the government has a mass data collection program that doesn’t require warrants or reasonable justification. They collect everything, and if the net drops on you someday down the road, they rifle through your words and habits, your contacts and memberships, and assemble a case that paints you as a terrorist under the Patriot Act.

So the kidwarriors may be our last best hope. Judge Aiken’s ruling means that all young persons, age 9 to 20, from all over America, have a legal standing to let their case go to trial. Imagine if this turns into a class action embracing all American youngsters against their government and their country’s most powerful industry! Such a case would occupy the moral high ground of the twenty-first century. Nothing short of their rights to life are at stake.

Publisher’s Note: Judith Stapleton is a writer in the fields of science and medicine.