A new wave of climate action is taking place right now at the United Nations Convention on Climate Change (COP21) in Paris. Interestingly, as these conferences are being held there is another wave of action going on in America and it’s being led by, perhaps, a rather surprising crowd: children. In August 2015, 21 youth between the ages of 8 and 19 filed a claim to sue the United States federal government over its inaction on climate change.
The group of youngsters, under the guidance and support of youth advocate and environmental action group Our Children’s Trust as well as climate scientist Dr. James Hansen, are leading the charge against an administration they feel has done too little to protect the planet for future generations. In fact, they’re even going so far as to claim inactivity around climate change is a violation of the constitutional rights of theirs as well as those of future Americans.
So, these brave youth have filed a case, but where does the evidence actually stand in supporting it?
First off, 97 percent of qualified science professionals agree that climate change is happening. NASA cites many factors pointing to a climate that is currently changing including: sea-level rise totaling 6.7 inches over the last century, warming of the top 700 meters of the ocean by 0.302 degrees Fahrenheit since 1969, and recession of glaciers in the Alps, Alaska, Africa, the Himalayas, the Rockies, and the Andes. Further, the EPA claims that the world’s average temperature has risen by 1.5°F over the last century. And 2014 was the hottest year on record, with 2015 expected to take the title by year’s end.
U.S. Department of Agriculture/ Flickr
The climate is certainly changing, and while every country is contributing to climate change in its own way, the case filed by the 21 children and teens this summer is particularly concerned with how America is contributing to climate change. 2011 saw the United States ranking second in the world, only behind China, when it came to highest carbon dioxide emissions. However, the United States actually led the world in the production of cumulative greenhouse gases from 1990 to 2011, accounting for 16 percent of the world’s emissions. 2015 has seen an increase in carbon dioxide emissions from the United States.
With evidence that climate change is indeed happening paired alongside evidence that the United States plays such a major role in contributing to the phenomenon, it appears that the American youth in this case certainly can argue that enough is not yet being done to guarantee a brighter and healthier future for our next generations.
Constitutional Rights In Question
The basis for this monumental case that pits grade schoolers and teens against the likes of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and President Barack Obama is that the federal government’s failure to effectively address climate change in a timely manner is a violation of the constitutional rights of our country’s future generations. How so?
The American youth involved in this unique case are claiming their Fifth and Ninth Amendment rights are in direct violation by the U.S. government’s inactivity around climate change. The Fifth Amendment, which guarantees “life, liberty and property” for citizens, is in jeopardy for Americans as the environment is destabilized by climate change, thus impacting everyday life in a negative manner. The Ninth Amendment, which guarantees rights for citizens beyond those outlined in the Bill of Rights, is arguably violated when American citizens are deprived of their access to healthy and natural ecosystems.
As for scientific proof that there is a violation of the Fifth and Ninth Amendments, the students are relying on carbon dioxide concentration measurements to support their claims. Anything above 350 ppm of atmospheric carbon dioxide for a sustained period of time could cause irreversible damage to our planet, and this number has been touted for several years as the goal in which to aim for when it comes to climate action. With the current atmospheric carbon dioxide measurements sitting at 400 ppm, it is vital that action is taken immediately or else planet Earth will be unable to recover. This statistic is currently the fire behind many climate action movements including the current case filed against the federal government.
Leaving a Legacy
Whether or not this federal case is actually ruled in favor of the brave young Americans that have filed it may not be the most important legacy they leave. Finding the federal government in violation of the constitutional rights of future generations certainly could bring about some of the action needed to address climate change, but this case is about so much more. Already this single case is calling all Americans, not just the federal government, to ponder what we are doing to our planet.
Is it fair to pass on a world characterized by foul air, dirty water, and damaged ecosystems? Is it just to continue to pump greenhouse gases into our atmosphere at unsustainable rates, causing irreversible damage that future generations will be forced to deal with?
While the outcome of this case remains to be seen, it has already begun to have a positive impact by the degree of accountability it is creating in our country. We now have actual faces and names to help us visualize this concept of “future generations.” We have actual American children that are already voicing their concern over the kind of world we will be leaving for them.
No longer can we ignore the individuals we are failing to act on behalf- their pleas for help have been heard. It is now our turn to answer.
Lead Image Source: Philippe Put/Flickr