A group of 15 teenagers went head to head against the United States government and the fossil fuel industry Wednesday after the Oregon-based nongovernmental organization Our Children's Trust opened up a lawsuit against President Barack Obama and a number of federal agencies for inaction on climate change.
The group are demanding the government “cease their permitting, authorizing and subsidizing of fossil fuels and, instead, move to swiftly phase out CO2 emissions,” reports The Nation.
The teenagers, who come from all over the country including Florida, Arizona, Hawaii and Alaska, accuse the government of infringing on “the fundamental right of citizens to be free from government actions that harm life, liberty and property” by “approving and promoting fossil fuel development.”
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The group claims the U.S. has been aware of the dangers of its energy policies for many years yet has failed to act.
“For over fifty years, the United States of America has known that carbon dioxide (“CO2”) pollution from burning fossil fuels was causing global warming and dangerous climate change, and that continuing to burn fossil fuels would destabilize the climate system on which present and future generations of our nation depend for their wellbeing and survival.”
“Despite this knowledge,” the statement from the group reads, “defendants (have) continued their policies and practices of allowing the exploitation of fossil fuels.”
More specifically, the teenagers refer to the Fifth and Ninth Amendments, which grant rights to due process and equal protection, as well as the public trust doctrine, which states that natural resources must be protected for public use.
Xiuhtezcatl Tonatiuh is one of the teens suing the gov't | Photo: Facebook
By failing to cut greenhouse gas emissions to the level recommended by scientists worldwide, the U.S. government is violating those rights, the group says, arguing that Washington's current climate policies discriminate against them and their peers because the consequences of climate change will severely impact their generation in the future.
Most of the teenagers fighting for a more environmentally friendly future have had their own, very personal encounters with the consequences of climate change. Examples include Nathaniel from Fairbanks, where wildfires have severely worsened his asthma, and Levi, who is only eight and feels threatened by rising sea levels as he and his family live on a low-lying barrier island in Florida.
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According to James Hansen, a climate change activist and former NASA climatologist, the “lawsuit is made necessary by the at-best schizophrenic, if not suicidal, nature of U.S. climate and energy policy.”
Hansen, who is included in the lawsuit as a “guardian for future generations,” points out that the fundamental rights of children hang in the balance.
“Our government’s permitting of additional, new or renewed fossil fuel projects is entirely antithetical to its fundamental responsibility to our children and their posterity,” he says.
It is not the first time the public trust doctrine is being used for environmental purposes, although it has most often been used to ensure access to waterways and extending it to the environment is rather unusual. However, Our Children's Trust is convinced that fossil fuel industry groups are taking the lawsuit seriously.
Last November lobbyists from ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, Koch Industries and other dirty-energy companies tried to gain permission to join the case, claiming the lawsuit needs to be dismissed as it does not “have enough standing.”
And while it may indeed be difficult for the teenagers to prove that their health and other problems are a direct consequence of government inaction on climate issues, victory could result in an “unprecedented restructuring of the economy” and pose “a direct, substantial threat to [their] businesses,” the group states.
“They understand how serious and significant our case is,” said one of the lawyers involved in the lawsuit, referring to the fossil fuel industry. “I genuinely believe that the fossil fuel industry is scared.”