Can our legal system stop global warming, for the sake of the children?


As an environmental attorney, I’ve seen time and time again how the American legal system can bring justice to people — blue-collar workers, private property owners — who had no other real venue for airing their grievances. We’ve seen time and time again that large, profit-minded corporations can’t be trusted to do the right thing, and that too many of our so-called political leaders will take the side of their big-moneyed donors instead of doing the right thing for their everyday constituents. The man who works a 10-hour day and comes home, unknowingly, with radioactive dust all over his overalls, or the rural family whose backyard has become a dumping ground for oil wastes…these kind of folks can usually only get justice in court of law, with a jury of their peers. I’ve seen this first hand, suing the Big Oil giants like Chevron and ExxonMobil on behalf of regular citizens, and winning real justice.

But what about the more systemic environmental problems that threaten America? When it comes to smog from too many cars on the road, or the junk that piles up in our oceans, the problem remains the same: Politicians are inclined to support the powerful corporations that write large campaign checks, and not the public interest. That’s especially true of the biggest problem now facing humankind: Climate change. The world’s political systems have seemed powerless to stop the rise in greenhouse-gas pollution from our power plants and our cars. As carbon levels rise in our atmosphere, the potential risks are catastrophic: Rising sea levels that would swamp large coastal cities, drought and famine, and storms that are more severe and more lethal. Those unthinkable consequences may not fall the hardest on you or me, but on your children, and then on their children.

What can be done?

It’s a case an attorney called “one of the most significant in our nation’s history.” And, thankfully, on Friday, a federal judge pushed it much-much closer to trial. Twenty-one young people (ages 8 to 19) are suing President Barack Obama and the federal government over making a mess of the planet for future generations.

It’s the climate version of David v. Goliath.A bunch of kids suing the big-bad feds.The government and fossil fuel groups had asked the court to toss out the federal case, but Judge Thomas Coffin on Friday denied those requests. “The nascent nature of these proceedings dictate further development of the record before the court can adjudicate whether any claims or parties should not survive for trial,” Coffin wrote in the decision. “Accordingly, the court should deny the motions to dismiss.”

The decision still needs to be reviewed by another judge before it goes to trial. But an attorney for the climate kids, Philip Gregory, told me there is a “high likelihood” it will pass that review.

“This decision was our biggest hurdle,” said Julia Olson, executive director of Our Children’s Trust, an advocacy group behind this and other lawsuits on behalf of young people.In a statement, the group called it a “major victory.” To me, part of that victory is getting all of us to look at climate change differently.

As an attorney, I find this case fascinating. One of the legal issues upon which the children and their lawyers are hanging their case is the notion of discrimination — that in their short-sighted policies President Obama and the national government has shown a kind of generational bias against America’s young people. The lawsuit also brings in other complex legal issues, including the concept of a so-called “public trust doctrine” as well as our most fundamental rights as citizens, to life, property and liberty,

But it’s the even bigger idea here that I find most exhilarating — this notion that the legal process can force the federal government to what it has resisted through normal politics, to develop a comprehensive plan that would control global warming by making the nation become carbon-neutral. We’ve discriminated against future generations of the world with our bad choices for far too long. I’ll continue to watch this case very closely, and so should you. Your kid’s future might depend on it.

Read more about the children’s lawsuit against President Obama and the federal government from CNN:

Learn more about the need for worldwide action on fossil fuels in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America

© Stuart H. Smith, LLC 2015 – All Rights Reserved

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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