6 Youth File Constitutional Climate Change Lawsuit Against Gov. Tom Wolf
Just weeks after 21 young people from across the U.S. filed a landmark constitutional climate change lawsuit against the federal government and days before Pope Francis visits the U.S. and Pennsylvania, six youth file lawsuit against Gov. Tom Wolf and six state agencies, including the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the Pennsylvania Environmental Quality Board.
The plaintiffs are seeking to protect their constitutional rights to clean air, pure water and other essential natural resources, which they rely on for their survival and wellbeing, but they feel are currently threatened by climate change. They are asking the defendants to take steps necessary to regulate Pennsylvania’s carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases consistent with the Commonwealth’s duty and obligations as public trustee under Article I, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution to conserve and maintain public natural resources, including the atmosphere, for the benefit of present and future generations.
Their complaint asserts that defendants are failing to fulfill their trustee obligations to meet the Commonwealth’s Article I, Section 27 requirements by failing to regulate CO2 emissions, as evidenced by the current harmful impacts of climate change within Pennsylvania, such as extreme weather events, rising temperatures and disruptions to the hydrological cycle.
Ashley Funk, one of the plaintiffs, previously petitioned the DEP three different times urging the state agency to take science-based action to reduce Pennsylvania’s carbon dioxide emissions.
“Through our work petitioning the DEP, I’ve learned so much and so has the DEP,” said Funk. “Our petitions forced the DEP to take a more critical look at what they are doing to address climate change in our state. Despite multiple opportunities, the DEP failed to take the necessary steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and address climate change, making this lawsuit necessary. I hope that the DEP continues to learn and follows suit with other calls to action for decreasing greenhouse gas emissions. I hope they finally take action to do what our constitution requires them to do: preserve our atmosphere as a public trust for generations to come.”
The suit was filed by the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic at Widener University Delaware Law School with Associate Professor of Law and Clinic Director Kenneth T. Kristl as lead counsel. The clinic prepares Delaware Law School students for practice by involving them in environmental cases and appeals like this one.
“This lawsuit relies upon the express language of Article I, Section 27 to require the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, through key agencies and public officials, to carry out its constitutional obligation to 'conserve and maintain’ the atmosphere for the benefit of present and future generations,” Kristl said. “The six remarkable plaintiffs—and the millions of present and future generations of Pennsylvanians they represent—are entitled to a coordinated, effective response to the present danger and future threat that climate change poses to them. The clinic and its law students are proud to represent them in this critical lawsuit to vindicate the rights and benefits that the Pennsylvania Constitution guarantees them.”
The youth are hopeful for a positive ruling in part because they live in a state with the strongest judicial mandate in the country articulating the public trust obligations of government. A December 2013 ruling in Robinson Township v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, overturned a state law that limited citizens’ rights to block hydraulic fracturing in their communities, based on Article I, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. The court found that the rights of present and future generations to trust resources, including air, water, state-owned lands and wildlife, are inherent and indefeasible, “and preserved rather than created by the Pennsylvania Constitution.”
“The constitutional public trust rights held by Pennsylvanians and all other people of the U.S., are expressed throughout our nation’s laws and legal history. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court strengthened and advanced these rights in its landmark Robinson Township decision and made clear that environmental rights are as important as all other rights. It’s time to apply those inalienable rights to the climate crisis,” said Julia Olson, executive director and chief legal counsel for Our Children’s Trust.
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 state to decrease atmospheric concentrations of CO2 to a safe level.
“Youth Plaintiffs are suffering both immediate and threatened injuries as a result of actions and inactions by Defendants,” the complaint states, “and will continue to suffer more injuries to their health, personal safety, bodily integrity, cultural and spiritual practices, economic stability, food security, property and recreational interests without the relief sought here.”
“It is our generation that will become the lawyers, doctors, politicians, engineers, artists, teachers and scientists for the future,” said 16-year-old plaintiff Rekha Dhillon-Richardson. “This generation of youth are the ones who are most affected by climate change, so we should have a legitimate and respected voice in change. We should be sitting at the table driving change forward because we are the future leaders of this planet.”
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The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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