The Paris climate change conference is the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) for countries wishing to take action on the environment. Burning fossil fuels harms the climate by injecting unsustainable levels of carbon dioxide (Co2) and other gases into the air, but it also makes people filthy rich. In fact the more fossil fuels you cause to burn, the richer you get. So the wealthiest economies show up year after year completely unwilling to agree to anything that would limit or reduce their wealth. That’s why this year’s conference is COP21 instead of COP5.
But a group of young people have joined forces with renowned atmospheric scientist James Hansen to sue Barack Obama and several federal agencies for depriving them of rights to a clean environment. One of them, 15-year-old Xiuhtezcatl Tonatiuh of Earth Guardians, is organizing and leading protests at COP21 to pressure the U.S. government to change.
What’s he looking for at the conference? “Talk is cheap. I wanna see concrete action and concrete promises from our country — and commitments for action on climate change.”
There’s not much legitimate debate about whether human activity is changing the climate, but the big question is what to do about it. The benchmark for a habitable planet is a CO2 concentration under 350 parts per million (ppm) by the year 2100. It’s over 400 ppm now, and it’s become increasingly clear that the only route back to 350 is to stop burning oil, natural gas and coal at industrial levels.
That’s not going to happen overnight, if it happens at all. It’s not even on the table in Paris. I’m hopeful something useful comes out of COP21, but I’m not counting on it. We are more likely to see incremental improvements in energy-efficient technologies and changes in household behavior that consume less energy. It’s also possible the courts could force positive changes in government policy.
This latest lawsuit (pdf) accuses the U.S. government of violating the constitutional rights of Tonatiuh and 20 other children to “life, liberty, property and public trust resources” by interfering in a stable climate system. The rights of future generations are also being violated, according to the complaint, which faults the government for permitting the exploitation and export of fossil fuels. The lawsuit seeks an order that would force the government and its executives to implement a “climate recovery plan” based on scientific consensus.
James Hansen still has the clearest scientific explanation for why the need for change is so urgent:
In short, because of the way our atmosphere works, changes take decades to appear. The floods and droughts we’re seeing now were caused by our actions several decades ago. So if we wait to see the patterns more clearly — and they’re already pretty clear — it’ll be too late to do anything about them. That’s not hyperbole; that’s science.
The fossil fuel industry is taking this lawsuit seriously, especially now that the State of New York is investigating Exxon for decades of climate change lies. Major trade groups are now moving to intervene (pdf) in the lawsuit to protect the industry’s ability to extract and sell fossil fuels without greater restrictions by the government. In my book, anything that frightens the fossil fuel industry is good for the environment.
I hope the lawsuit succeeds, but sadly I don’t see many federal judges choosing a right to clean air over economic interests. I’d like to be wrong, but I’m betting this court will deem the lawsuit ‘political’ and toss it out. Suits like this would have better prospects if we could follow Bolivia’s lead and pass a constitutional amendment recognizing the rights of Mother Earth.
I know, I know, but it could happen. It could. Share your thoughts on climate change and the potential for litigation to affect it below.