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21 Youths File Landmark Climate Lawsuit Against Federal Government

Climate

On International Youth Day yesterday, 21 young people from across the U.S. filed a landmark constitutional climate change lawsuit against the federal government in the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon. Also acting as a plaintiff is world-renowned climate scientist Dr. James E. Hansen, serving as guardian for future generations, Hansen's granddaughter and Earth Guardians, representing young citizen beneficiaries of the public trust. The complaint asserts that, in causing climate change, the federal government has violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, property and has failed to protect essential public trust resources.

The complaint alleges the federal government is violating the youth’s constitutional rights by promoting the development and use of fossil fuels. These young plaintiffs are challenging the federal government’s national fossil fuel programs, as well as the proposed Jordan Cove LNG export terminal in Coos Bay, Oregon. Plaintiffs seek to hold President Obama and various federal agencies responsible for continued fossil fuel exploitation. The federal government has known for decades that fossil fuels are destroying the climate system. No less important than in the civil rights cases, plaintiffs seek a court order requiring the President to immediately implement a national plan to decrease atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide to a safe level: 350 ppm by the year 2100.

In describing the case, one of the teenage plaintiffs and Youth Director of Earth Guardians, Xiuhtezcatl Tonatiuh Martinez, stated: “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, 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.”

Another plaintiff, 18-year-old Kelsey Juliana, said: “Our nation's top climate scientists, including Dr. Hansen, have found that the present CO2 level is already in the danger zone and leading to devastating disruptions of planetary systems. The current practices and policies of our federal government include sustained exploitation and consumption of fossil fuels. We brought this case because the government needs to immediately and aggressively reduce carbon emissions and stop promoting fossil fuels, which force our nation's climate system toward irreversible impacts. A key example is approval of LNG pipelines and export terminals in Oregon. If the government continues to delay urgent annual emissions reductions, my generation's wellbeing will be inexcusably put at risk.”

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Based on the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the complaint argues that, despite knowing CO2 emissions cause dangerous climate change and ocean acidification, the federal government failed to restrict those emissions and continues to authorize fossil fuel projects that amplify the danger and foreclose the opportunity to stabilize the climate system. The lawsuit specifies the Jordan Cove Energy Project as one egregious instance in which the federal government intensified that danger to plaintiffs’ life, liberty and property. Plaintiffs seek judicial action no less important, from a strictly legal basis, than Brown v. Board of Education (right to equal educational opportunity) and Obergefell v. Hodges (right to marry). This case places indisputable climate science squarely in front of the federal judiciary, requesting an order forcing our government to cease jeopardizing the climate system for present and future generations.

“We uncovered shocking admissions by the White House and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): they have known for decades of the extreme dangers of fossil fuels,” noted Philip Gregory of Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy, of Burlingame, California, counsel to the plaintiffs. “The complaint explains how defendants have known since at least 1965 that CO2 emissions from fossil fuels would create perilous climate change, with enormous and harmful impacts for future generations—including our children. These disclosures also arose in the 1980’s when Congress worked with the EPA to develop a national plan to keep atmospheric CO2 levels at 350 ppm. Despite the government’s extensive knowledge of the dangers of CO2 emissions and draft plans to reduce these emissions, defendants continued to authorize and promote fossil fuel extraction, production, consumption and all their associated emissions—to the grave detriment of future generations.”

“By 2020, the Jordan Cove Energy Project will be the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the whole state of Oregon,” stated 18-year-old Alex Loznak, one of the eleven Oregon youth plaintiffs. “Science tells us we must sharply cut back on CO2 emissions, but my federal government has given the green light to massive LNG exports from this terminal. If constructed, the terminal would process one billion cubic feet of natural gas per day, locking us into dependence on fossil fuels at a time when we should be transitioning toward a renewable energy economy. My family has owned a farm near the proposed pipeline route for almost 150 years and I’m worried about the impacts that increased drought and wildfire will have on the farm unless we act now on climate change.”

The complaint includes each plaintiff’s individual story and the ways in which they are harmed by climate change now and will be in the future if the court does not order the federal government to decrease atmospheric concentrations of CO2 to a safe level. For example, Youth plaintiff Tia Hatton, from Bend, Oregon, has experienced record low snowfall for the past three years, threatening her water supplies and winter sports. She knows carbon pollution confronts her and her generation with the specter of severe water shortages and is concerned she will be forced to stop skiing competitively. Levi Draheim, an 8-year-old plaintiff from Indialantic, Florida lives with his family on a small barrier island between the Atlantic ocean and a lagoon. Sea level rise is already seriously impacting their island and Levi is worried he will have to move if it becomes worse. Plaintiff Journey Zephier, a 15-year-old who lives in Kauai, Hawaii, is watching the island’s beaches erode away. The island’s decreased rainfall is resulting in lower river water levels and his community is faced with serious water quality problems because saltwater is intruding upriver from sea level rise.

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“This bold action by youth in the U.S. challenges federal government actions that are causing and exacerbating, rather than abating, the climate crisis,” said Roger Cox, attorney for URGENDA who recently secured a court order in the Netherlands ordering the Dutch government to decrease emissions. “Like the court found in our Dutch case, the U.S. government also has a duty to safeguard the climate for present and future generations, but when the government fails to do so, plaintiffs must be able to rely on the judicial branch to remedy the grave injustice being perpetrated by their own government.” Cox added that “What the U.S. courts do in this case will have implications for the rest of the world and for the degree of climate change we will all face in the years to come.”

Dr. James Hansen, director of the Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions program at Columbia University, stated: “We have a global climate emergency. Earth is out of energy balance, there is more energy coming in than going out. That energy drives warming of the ocean, ice sheet disintegration and sea level rise, stronger storms, more intense heat waves, droughts, fires and floods. Our Constitution guarantees young people equal protection of the law and the rights to life, liberty—including the pursuit of happiness—and property. These rights may not be denied by government action without due process of law.”

According to Dr. Hansen, “Sensible means exist to rapidly phase down CO2 emissions, to wit, a rising carbon fee collected from fossil fuel companies with funds distributed to the public. Instead, our President proposes ineffectual actions, demonstrably short of what is needed and persists in approving fossil fuel projects that will slam shut the narrowing window of opportunity to ensure a hospitable climate system. I aim to testify on behalf of young people. Their future hangs in the balance.”

“The purpose of this case is to obtain an order from a federal court requiring the U.S. government, including the President and specific federal agencies, to develop a national plan to protect our atmosphere and stable climate system. These youth, as well as future generations, have constitutional due process and equal protection rights to be free from governmental harm to those resources,” said Julia Olson, executive director and chief legal counsel for Our Children’s Trust and lead counsel on the litigation. “This lawsuit asks whether our government has a constitutional responsibility to leave a viable climate system for future generations. The federal government has consciously chosen to endanger young people’s right to a stable climate system for the short-term economic interests of a few. In light of the established science, federal approval of the Jordan Cove LNG Project cannot stand. This administration must no longer consign future generations to an uninhabitable planet.”

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The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.

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We are neurologists specializing in intensive care and leading studies related to neurological complications from COVID-19. Given the occurrence of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in prior pandemics with other corona viruses like SARS and MERS, we are investigating a possible link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19 and tracking published reports to see if there is any link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19.

Some patients may not seek timely medical care for neurological symptoms like prolonged headache, vision loss and new muscle weakness due to fear of getting exposed to virus in the emergency setting. People need to know that medical facilities have taken full precautions to protect patients. Seeking timely medical evaluation for neurological symptoms can help treat many of these diseases.

What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.

Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.

To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.

Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.

The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Pandemics

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.

Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.

The first reports of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in COVID-19 pandemic originated from Italy, Spain and China, where the pandemic surged before the U.S. crisis.

Though there is clear clinical suspicion that COVID-19 can lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, many important questions remain. What are the chances that someone gets Guillain-Barre Syndrome during or following a COVID-19 infection? Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome happen more often in those who have been infected with COVID-19 compared to other types of infections, such as the flu?

The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.

Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome

While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.

It is certainly possible that there are other cases that have not been reported. The Global Consortium Study of Neurological Dysfunctions in COVID-19 is actively underway to find out how often neurological problems like Guillain-Barre Syndrome is seen in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Also, just because Guillain-Barre Syndrome occurs in a patient diagnosed with COVID-19, that does not imply that it was caused by the virus; this still may be a coincident occurrence. More research is needed to understand how the two events are related.

Due to the pandemic and infection-containment considerations, diagnostic tests, such as a nerve conduction study that used to be routine for patients with suspected Guillain-Barre Syndrome, are more difficult to do. In both U.S. cases, the initial diagnosis and treatment were all based on clinical examination by a neurological experts rather than any tests. Both patients survived but with significant residual weakness at the time these case reports came out, but that is not uncommon for Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients. The road to recovery may sometimes be long, but many patients can make a full recovery with time.

Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.

Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.

Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.

Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.


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In a series of tweets Wednesday night, Ocasio-Cortez—the lead sponsor of the House Green New Deal resolution—noted that the Climate Task Force "shaved 15 years off Biden's previous target for 100% clean energy."

"Of course, like in any collaborative effort, there are areas of negotiation and compromise," said the New York Democrat. "But I do believe that the Climate Task Force effort meaningfully and substantively improved Biden's positions."

 

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Sanders said that while the "end result isn't what I or my supporters would've written alone, the task forces have created a good policy blueprint that will move this country in a much-needed progressive direction and substantially improve the lives of working families throughout our country."

"I look forward to working with Vice President Biden to help him win this campaign," the Vermont senator added, "and to move this country forward toward economic, racial, social, and environmental justice."

Biden, for his part, applauded the task forces "for helping build a bold, transformative platform for our party and for our country."

"I am deeply grateful to Bernie Sanders for working with us to unite our party and deliver real, lasting change for generations to come," said the former vice president.

On the life-or-death matter of reforming America's dysfunctional private health insurance system—a subject on which Sanders and Biden clashed repeatedly throughout the Democratic primary process—the Unity Task Force affirmed healthcare as "a right" but did not embrace Medicare for All, the signature policy plank of the Vermont senator's presidential bid.

Instead, the panel recommended building on the Affordable Care Act by establishing a public option, investing in community health centers, and lowering prescription drug costs by allowing the federal government to negotiate prices. The task force also endorsed making all Covid-19 testing, treatments, and potential vaccines free and expanding Medicaid for the duration of the pandemic.

"It has always been a crisis that tens of millions of Americans have no or inadequate health insurance—but in a pandemic, it's potentially catastrophic for public health," the task force wrote.

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a former Michigan gubernatorial candidate and Sanders-appointed member of the Healthcare Task Force, said that despite major disagreements, the panel "came to recommendations that will yield one of the most progressive Democratic campaign platforms in history—though we have further yet to go."

 

Observers and advocacy groups also applauded the Unity Task Forces for recommending the creation of a postal banking system, endorsing a ban on for-profit charter schools, ending the use of private prisons, and imposing a 100-day moratorium on deportations "while conducting a full-scale study on current practices to develop recommendations for transforming enforcement policies and practices at ICE and CBP."

Marisa Franco, director of immigrant rights group Mijente, said in a statement that "going into these task force negotiations, we knew we were going to have to push Biden past his comfort zone, both to reconcile with past offenses and to carve a new path forward."

"That is exactly what we did, unapologetically," said Franco, a member of the Immigration Task Force. "For years, Mijente, along with the broader immigrant rights movement, has fought to reshape the narrative around immigration towards racial justice and to focus these very demands. We expect Biden and the Democratic Party to implement them in their entirety."

"There is no going back," Franco added. "Not an inch, not a step. We must only move forward from here."

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.