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What’s Next for the Youth Climate Lawsuit
Andrea Rodgers, second from the right, takes notes during a hearing in the Juliana v. U.S. case before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Portland, Oregon on June 4. Colleague Elizabeth Brown sits to her left, while colleague Julia Olson sits on her right, with co-council Philip Gregory on Julia's right. Robin Loznak / Our Children's Trust
By Fran Korten
On June 4, Andrea Rodgers was in the front row of attorneys sitting before a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court. The court session, held in Portland, Oregon, was to determine whether the climate change lawsuit (Juliana v. United States) brought by 21 young plaintiffs should be dismissed, as requested by the U.S. government, or go on to trial.
It's the latest of many delays for the lawsuit, which was first filed in 2015 by the then-youth plaintiffs. The judges' decision on this most recent request to dismiss the case is expected sometime in the next few months.
Rodgers is a senior attorney for Our Children's Trust, the nonprofit based in Eugene, Oregon, that is supporting the young plaintiffs — the eldest of whom are now young adults while the youngest is 11 — in making their case.
They're suing the U.S. government for endangering their future by supporting a fossil fuel-based energy system, despite knowledge of how that would contribute to the current climate disaster. Rodgers is also the lead attorney for climate-related suits on behalf of children in the states of Washington and Florida.
I spoke with Rodgers about the lawsuit, the youth movements erupting around the world in response to governments' inaction on climate change, and about preparing her own children for a future marked by the climate disaster.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length, and Andrea Rodgers reviewed the edits for accuracy.
Fran Korten: In the 9th Circuit hearing on June 4, Judge Andrew Hurwitz remarked that with this suit you are asking the court to break new ground. Are you?
Andrea Rodgers: We are not breaking ground with respect to our claims that the government's conduct is violating the youth's constitutional rights to life, liberty, property and equal protection of the law.
Where we're breaking new legal ground is with respect to a new fundamental right—the right to a stable climate system that sustains human lives and liberties. The scale of the government misconduct in this case is quite unprecedented. Never before has there been this kind of government-created public health disaster at such a large scale.
Korten: This case has been stalled for more than four years by the government's motions to dismiss. How are the plaintiffs in this case reacting to all this delay?
Rodgers: Many of these kids have been engaged in this litigation for a fifth or more of their lives. They're ready to get their evidence presented to a court. So it's frustrating. But they're also confident that they're going to get their stories told and that justice will be done. They're just unfortunately seeing that sometimes justice is not swift.
Korten: What gives them the confidence that they will be heard?
Rodgers: They know that they have constitutional rights. They've read the Constitution. They see that they have the right to life and liberty. And they understand the science and how their rights are being infringed upon. Under our system of government, you can go to court to get redress. So they are confident that the courts will appropriately apply the law to protect them.
Korten: How do you see this youth-based lawsuit relating to other youth-led movements like the Sunrise movement, Zero Hour, Extinction Rebellion and the worldwide Friday strikes led by Greta Thunberg in Sweden?
Rodgers: It's really exciting to see these other youth movements develop. I think a lot of people were inspired by these young plaintiffs who, back in 2010, decided to bring their cases to court. Youth today are so aware of what other youth are doing that these movements build off of one another—the students fighting gun violence and [racism] and so much more. They're having these conversations about the world that they want to live in and that they believe that they're entitled to as a matter of law. So it's exciting to see that. As an adult, you want kids who are active in the democratic process. And this is such an important part of that.
Korten: Do you think the activism among the youth will have any effect on the courts' decisions in this case?
Left to right, attorney Andrea Rodgers, Juliana youth plaintiff Aji Piper, lead counsel Julia Olson and Juliana youth plaintiff Hazel Van Ummersen, walk to a court hearing in front of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Portland, Oregon on June 4.
Robin Loznak / Our Children's Trust
Rodgers: The court doesn't look to what's going on outside the courtroom in order to render a legal decision. But the courts are also made up of judges who are human and aware of the world around them. They understand when there is societal change going on. You see that with the gay marriage decision. I don't think that decision would have happened without the "Love Is Love" and other campaigns. Same thing with Brown v. Board of Education and the bus boycotts. So the movements outside of the courtroom are critical. We have three branches of government, and they all know what the other is doing. But I wouldn't go so far as to say that the courts are influenced directly. It's really much more indirect, long term and bigger picture.
Korten: If you do go to trial, you will bring testimony from many experts. But much of that information is already in the news, in academic papers and reviewed in governmental panels. Is there any special value to having it aired in court?
Rodgers: Absolutely. Because in court, it's sworn testimony under oath. Scientific testimony has to go through a very rigorous process to be admissible in a court of law. Junk science is thrown out or considered unreliable. There are scientific standards for what's admissible in a court of law. The person delivering testimony has to be considered an expert in the fields in which they're testifying. There's no fake news in the court because that's considered perjury. And then the witness is cross-examined. So it gives the other side an opportunity to poke holes in their testimony and to bring in other conflicting information.
We have 23 expert witnesses. People like James Hansen, Joseph Stiglitz, Frank Ackerman, Harold Wanless, Steve Running, Hugh Goldberg, Pete Erickson and [James Gustave] Speth, all of whom are the top experts in their fields. It'll be the trial of the century.
Korten: What is the best outcome you could imagine from this suit?
Rodgers: A court order recognizing that these youth have constitutional rights and that the government is violating those constitutional rights. And then a court order directing the defendants—the government agencies—to come up with a plan to bring the energy system into constitutional compliance.
While the courts can order the government to make a plan, they don't write policies. That's why things like the Green New Deal and other climate change policies are so critical. We have to have the policies ready because our government is not going to be quick to develop a remedial plan.
Korten: What can ordinary citizens do to support this case?
Attorney Andrea Rodgers being interviewed at a press conference on the steps of the Miami Dade County Courthouse in 2018. Rodgers was representing Florida youth in a climate change lawsuit against the state of Florida.
Robin Loznak / Our Children's Trust
Rodgers: On the Our Children's Trust website, there are toolkits so that supporters can get engaged and support the youth plaintiffs. You can teach young people about the suit and their constitutional rights in school. There are ways to utilize the litigation to galvanize members of the community in support of science-based climate action. There are people getting congressional and other elected leaders to recognize that there's a fundamental right to a stable climate system.
Korten: You recently spoke at the Bainbridge Island Climate and Energy Forum in Washington state. How do you see the value of local actions such as that one?
Rodgers: Local action is the primary way that people in the community are learning about climate change. This kind of local forum can keep people aware of policy efforts and making phone calls on legislation or learning about election issues. The other thing a local forum does is to bind us together as a community. Climate change is a very difficult issue. It's easy to throw up your hands and give up. When you're working on this issue within a community, that's so much more powerful. It keeps you going when you feel frustrated or disheartened. You have that community to lean on.
Korten: You are a mother. How do you help your children understandwhat you're fighting for without scaring them?
Rodgers: It's really hard. My daughter is 8, and my son 11. You don't want them to think that there is no future for the planet. But at the same time I want them to recognize the reality of what's going on and what the scientists say. This is going to be the issue they will work on because it's going to affect their world in every way imaginable. So they need to be prepared for that.
I try to engender within them a love and appreciation for the natural world and then the understanding that they're going to need to fight to protect it. It shouldn't have to be a fight, but it really is. We saw that in court. The government's lawyer was advocating that there shouldn't be a right to a stable climate system even though his children and his grandchildren are dependent upon that for their lives. But there he was making those arguments, as scary as that is. So my own children are going to need to know the reality and carry the fight forward.
Reposted with permission from our media associate YES! Magazine.
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By Tara Smith
Fires in the Brazilian Amazon have jumped 84 percent during President Jair Bolsonaro's first year in office and in July 2019 alone, an area of rainforest the size of Manhattan was lost every day. The Amazon fires may seem beyond human control, but they're not beyond human culpability.
Bolsonaro ran for president promising to "integrate the Amazon into the Brazilian economy". Once elected, he slashed the Brazilian environmental protection agency budget by 95 percent and relaxed safeguards for mining projects on indigenous lands. Farmers cited their support for Bolsonaro's approach as they set fires to clear rainforest for cattle grazing.
Bolsonaro's vandalism will be most painful for the indigenous people who call the Amazon home. But destruction of the world's largest rainforest may accelerate climate change and so cause further suffering worldwide. For that reason, Brazil's former environment minister, Marina Silva, called the Amazon fires a crime against humanity.
From a legal perspective, this might be a helpful way of prosecuting environmental destruction. Crimes against humanity are international crimes, like genocide and war crimes, which are considered to harm both the immediate victims and humanity as a whole. As such, all of humankind has an interest in their punishment and deterrence.
Crimes against humanity were first classified as an international crime during the Nuremberg trials that followed World War II. Two German Generals, Alfred Jodl and Lothar Rendulic, were charged with war crimes for implementing scorched earth policies in Finland and Norway. No one was charged with crimes against humanity for causing the unprecedented environmental damage that scarred the post-war landscapes though.
Our understanding of the Earth's ecology has matured since then, yet so has our capacity to pollute and destroy. It's now clear that the consequences of environmental destruction don't stop at national borders. All humanity is placed in jeopardy when burning rainforests flood the atmosphere with CO₂ and exacerbate climate change.
Holding someone like Bolsonaro to account for this by charging him with crimes against humanity would be a world first. If successful, it could set a precedent which might stimulate more aggressive legal action against environmental crimes. But do the Amazon fires fit the criteria?
Prosecuting crimes against humanity requires proof of widespread and systematic attacks against a civilian population. If a specific part of the global population is persecuted, this is an affront to the global conscience. In the same way, domestic crimes are an affront to the population of the state in which they occur.
When prosecuting prominent Nazis in Nuremberg, the US chief prosecutor, Robert Jackson, argued that crimes against humanity are committed by individuals, not abstract entities. Only by holding individuals accountable for their actions can widespread atrocities be deterred in future.
The International Criminal Court's Chief Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, has promised to apply the approach first developed in Nuremberg to prosecute individuals for international crimes that result in significant environmental damage. Her recommendations don't create new environmental crimes, such as "ecocide", which would punish severe environmental damage as a crime in itself. They do signal, however, a growing appreciation of the role that environmental damage plays in causing harm and suffering to people.
The International Criminal Court was asked in 2014 to open an investigation into allegations of land-grabbing by the Cambodian government. In Cambodia, large corporations and investment firms were being given prime agricultural land by the government, displacing up to 770,000 Cambodians from 4m hectares of land. Prosecuting these actions as crimes against humanity would be a positive first step towards holding individuals like Bolsonaro accountable.
But given the global consequences of the Amazon fires, could environmental destruction of this nature be legally considered a crime against all humanity? Defining it as such would be unprecedented. The same charge could apply to many politicians and business people. It's been argued that oil and gas executives who've funded disinformation about climate change for decades should be chief among them.
Charging individuals for environmental crimes against humanity could be an effective deterrent. But whether the law will develop in time to prosecute people like Bolsonaro is, as yet, uncertain. Until the International Criminal Court prosecutes individuals for crimes against humanity based on their environmental damage, holding individuals criminally accountable for climate change remains unlikely.
This story originally appeared in The Conversation. It is republished here as part of EcoWatch's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
By Natalie Hanman
Why are you publishing this book now?
I still feel that the way that we talk about climate change is too compartmentalised, too siloed from the other crises we face. A really strong theme running through the book is the links between it and the crisis of rising white supremacy, the various forms of nationalism and the fact that so many people are being forced from their homelands, and the war that is waged on our attention spans. These are intersecting and interconnecting crises and so the solutions have to be as well.
The book collects essays from the last decade, have you changed your mind about anything?
When I look back, I don't think I placed enough emphasis on the challenge climate change poses to the left. It's more obvious the way the climate crisis challenges a rightwing dominant worldview, and the cult of serious centrism that never wants to do anything big, that's always looking to split the difference. But this is also a challenge to a left worldview that is essentially only interested in redistributing the spoils of extractivism [the process of extracting natural resources from the earth] and not reckoning with the limits of endless consumption.
What's stopping the left doing this?
In a North American context, it's the greatest taboo of all to actually admit that there are going to be limits. You see that in the way Fox News has gone after the Green New Deal – they are coming after your hamburgers! It cuts to the heart of the American dream – every generation gets more than the last, there is always a new frontier to expand to, the whole idea of settler colonial nations like ours. When somebody comes along and says, actually, there are limits, we've got some tough decisions, we need to figure out how to manage what's left, we've got to share equitably – it is a psychic attack. And so the response [on the left] has been to avoid, and say no, no, we're not coming to take away your stuff, there are going to be all kinds of benefits. And there aregoing to be benefits: we'll have more livable cities, we'll have less polluted air, we'll spend less time stuck in traffic, we can design happier, richer lives in so many ways. But we are going to have to contract on the endless, disposable consumption side.
Do you feel encouraged by talk of the Green New Deal?
I feel a tremendous excitement and a sense of relief, that we are finally talking about solutions on the scale of the crisis we face. That we're not talking about a little carbon tax or a cap and trade scheme as a silver bullet. We're talking about transforming our economy. This system is failing the majority of people anyway, which is why we're in this period of such profound political destabilisation – that is giving us the Trumps and the Brexits, and all of these strongman leaders – so why don't we figure out how to change everything from bottom to top, and do it in a way that addresses all of these other crises at the same time? There is every chance we will miss the mark, but every fraction of a degree warming that we are able to hold off is a victory and every policy that we are able to win that makes our societies more humane, the more we will weather the inevitable shocks and storms to come without slipping into barbarism. Because what really terrifies me is what we are seeing at our borders in Europe and North America and Australia – I don't think it's coincidental that the settler colonial states and the countries that are the engines of that colonialism are at the forefront of this. We are seeing the beginnings of the era of climate barbarism. We saw it in Christchurch, we saw it in El Paso, where you have this marrying of white supremacist violence with vicious anti-immigrant racism.
That is one of the most chilling sections of your book: I think that's a link a lot of people haven't made.
This pattern has been clear for a while. White supremacy emerged not just because people felt like thinking up ideas that were going to get a lot of people killed but because it was useful to protect barbaric but highly profitable actions. The age of scientific racism begins alongside the transatlantic slave trade, it is a rationale for that brutality. If we are going to respond to climate change by fortressing our borders, then of course the theories that would justify that, that create these hierarchies of humanity, will come surging back. There have been signs of that for years, but it is getting harder to deny because you have killers who are screaming it from the rooftops.
One criticism you hear about the environment movement is that it is dominated by white people. How do you address that?
When you have a movement that is overwhelmingly representative of the most privileged sector of society then the approach is going to be much more fearful of change, because people who have a lot to lose tend to be more fearful of change, whereas people who have a lot to gain will tend to fight harder for it. That's the big benefit of having an approach to climate change that links it to those so called bread and butter issues: how are we going to get better paid jobs, affordable housing, a way for people to take care of their families?
I have had many conversations with environmentalists over the years where they seem really to believe that by linking fighting climate change with fighting poverty, or fighting for racial justice, it's going to make the fight harder. We have to get out of this "my crisis is bigger than your crisis: first we save the planet and then we fight poverty and racism, and violence against women". That doesn't work. That alienates the people who would fight hardest for change.
This debate has shifted a huge amount in the U.S. because of the leadership of the climate justice movement and because it is congresswomen of colour who are championing the Green New Deal. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaibcome from communities that have gotten such a raw deal under the years of neoliberalism and longer, and are determined to represent, truly represent, the interests of those communities. They're not afraid of deep change because their communities desperately need it.
In the book, you write: "The hard truth is that the answer to the question 'What can I, as an individual, do to stop climate change?' is: nothing." Do you still believe that?
In terms of the carbon, the individual decisions that we make are not going to add up to anything like the kind of scale of change that we need. And I do believe that the fact that for so many people it's so much more comfortable to talk about our own personal consumption, than to talk about systemic change, is a product of neoliberalism, that we have been trained to see ourselves as consumers first. To me that's the benefit of bringing up these historical analogies, like the New Deal or the Marshall Plan – it brings our minds back to a time when we were able to think of change on that scale. Because we've been trained to think very small. It is incredibly significant that Greta Thunberg has turned her life into a living emergency.
Yes, she set sail for the UN climate summit in New York on a zero carbon yacht ...
Exactly. But this isn't about what Greta is doing as an individual. It's about what Greta is broadcasting in the choices that she makes as an activist, and I absolutely respect that. I think it's magnificent. She is using the power that she has to broadcast that this is an emergency, and trying to inspire politicians to treat it as an emergency. I don't think anybody is exempt from scrutinising their own decisions and behaviours but I think it is possible to overemphasise the individual choices. I have made a choice – and this has been true since I wrote No Logo, and I started getting these "what should I buy, where should I shop, what are the ethical clothes?" questions. My answer continues to be that I am not a lifestyle adviser, I am not anyone's shopping guru, and I make these decisions in my own life but I'm under no illusion that these decisions are going to make the difference.
Some people are choosing to go on birth strikes. What do you think about that?
I'm happy these discussions are coming into the public domain as opposed to being furtive issues we're afraid to talk about. It's been very isolating for people. It certainly was for me. One of the reasons I waited as long as I did to try and get pregnant, and I would say this to my partner all the time – what, you want to have a Mad Max water warrior fighting with their friends for food and water? It wasn't until I was part of the climate justice movement and I could see a path forward that I could even imagine having a kid. But I would never tell anybody how to answer this most intimate of questions. As a feminist who knows the brutal history of forced sterilisation and the ways in which women's bodies become battle zones when policymakers decide that they are going to try and control population, I think that the idea that there are regulatory solutions when it comes to whether or not to have kids is catastrophically ahistorical. We need to be struggling with our climate grief together and our climate fears together, through whatever decision we decide to make, but the discussion we need to have is how do we build a world so that those kids can have thriving, zero-carbon lives?
Over the summer, you encouraged people to read Richard Powers's novel, The Overstory. Why?
It's been incredibly important to me and I'm happy that so many people have written to me since. What Powers is writing about trees: that trees live in communities and are in communication, and plan and react together, and we've been completely wrong in the way we conceptualise them. It's the same conversation we're having about whether we are going to solve this as individuals or whether we are going to save the collective organism. It's also rare, in good fiction, to valorise activism, to treat it with real respect, failures and all, to acknowledge the heroism of the people who put their bodies on the line. I thought Powers did that in a really extraordinary way.
What are you views on what Extinction Rebellion has achieved?
One thing they have done so well is break us out of this classic campaign model we have been in for a long time, where you tell someone something scary, you ask them to click on something to do something about it, you skip out the whole phase where we need to grieve together and feel together and process what it is that we just saw. Because what I hear a lot from people is, ok, maybe those people back in the 1930s or 40s could organise neighbourhood by neighbourhood or workplace by workplace but we can't. We believe we've been so downgraded as a species that we are incapable of that. The only thing that is going to change that belief is getting face to face, in community, having experiences, off our screens, with one another on the streets and in nature, and winning some things and feeling that power.
You talk about stamina in the book. How do you keep going? Do you feel hopeful?
I have complicated feelings about the hope question. Not a day goes by that I don't have a moment of sheer panic, raw terror, complete conviction that we are doomed, and then I do pull myself out of it. I'm renewed by this new generation that is so determined, so forceful. I'm inspired by the willingness to engage in electoral politics, because my generation, when we were in our 20s and 30s, there was so much suspicion around getting our hands dirty with electoral politics that we lost a lot of opportunities. What gives me the most hope right now is that we've finally got the vision for what we want instead, or at least the first rough draft of it. This is the first time this has happened in my lifetime. And also, I did decide to have kids. I have a seven year old who is so completely obsessed and in love with the natural world. When I think about him, after we've spent an entire summer talking about the role of salmon in feeding the forests where he was born in British Columbia, and how they are linked to the health of the trees and the soil and the bears and the orcas and this entire magnificent ecosystem, and I think about what it would be like to have to tell him that there are no more salmon, it kills me. So that motivates me. And slays me.
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Drivers of electric cars are being unfairly punished by punitive fees in several states, according to a newly published analysis by Consumer Reports. Legislators in 26 states have enacted or proposed special registration fees for electric vehicles (EVs) that the consumer advocacy group found to be more expensive than the gas taxes paid by the driver of an average new gasoline vehicle.
By Oliver Milman
Two-thirds of Americans believe climate change is either a crisis or a serious problem, with a majority wanting immediate action to address global heating and its damaging consequences, major new polling has found.