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James Hansen Hails Landmark Youth Climate Lawsuit: We Can’t Rely on Our Politicians to Do Anything

Web ExclusiveAugust 31, 2017
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Our Children’s Trust has filed a landmark lawsuit on behalf of 21 young people all under the age of 21. The lawsuit alleges the federal government has failed to take necessary action to curtail fossil fuel emissions. We speak with world-renowned climatologist Dr. James Hansen.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We turn now to look at an historic climate lawsuit against the U.S. government. With the help of Our Children’s Trust, a group of 21 young people, all under the age of 21, have filed a lawsuit alleging the government has failed to take necessary action to curtail fossil fuel emissions. Earlier this year at the March for Science, which was held on Earth Day in Washington, D.C., I spoke to Julia Olson, executive director and chief legal counsel for Our Children’s Trust, and some of her young clients.

JULIA OLSON: I’m Julia Olson. I’m the executive director of Our Children’s Trust. And I’m a lawyer representing 21 young people who filed a lawsuit against the government. They’re now suing the Trump administration and the whole fossil fuel industry for violating their fundamental constitutional rights to a climate system that will protect them and their future.

AMY GOODMAN: So, but this—I remember, when we broadcast from Stanford University, you were suing the Obama administration.

JULIA OLSON: That’s right. And now we have a new president and a new administration that is denying the facts of climate change. And so, it’s a very interesting situation, where Obama admitted that these kids are facing a crisis, and now we have an administration working hand in hand with the industry to fight them.

AMY GOODMAN: And on what grounds are you suing?

JULIA OLSON: It’s a case under the U.S. Constitution. This is about the Fifth Amendment and these young people’s rights to life, liberty and property. It’s also their right to have their public trust resources, like their atmosphere and their oceans, protected for them and for their kids and grandkids.

AMY GOODMAN: So, why don’t you introduce us to some of the plaintiffs right here?

JULIA OLSON: Sure. I’d love to. So, over here—

AMY GOODMAN: We’re passing a sign that says, “President Trump & Fossil Fuel Industry… #YouthvGov See you in court.”

JULIA OLSON: So, this is Hazel. She’s one of our younger plaintiffs. And Hazel’s from Eugene, Oregon.

AMY GOODMAN: Hazel, can you talk about why you’re here today in your T-shirt in the pouring rain?

HAZEL VAN UMMERSEN: Well, I’m from Oregon. And in Oregon, all it does is rain. And it’s extremely important for us young people to stand up to our government, where the adults are doing nothing to prevent climate change and to stop the harmful effects of ocean acidification and sea level rising.

AMY GOODMAN: How old are you?

HAZEL VAN UMMERSEN: I’m 12 years old.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you get involved with this lawsuit?

HAZEL VAN UMMERSEN: Well, I went to a camp with Julia Olson. I met Kelsey Juliana, and I became very inspired by her and many of the other plaintiffs that are now on this case. And I believed in this cause. We have hope, and we have the power to change.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think is getting in the way?

HAZEL VAN UMMERSEN: I think our president, currently, who I feel is one of the biggest climate deniers, with a pretty substantial control of power, and he does not believe that science is real. He thinks it’s a hoax made up by the Chinese, but we have science to prove him wrong. We will see him in court, and we will win.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s walk across. Tell me what your name is.

NATHAN BARING: Hi. I’m Nathan Baring. I’m 17, and I’m from Fairbanks, Alaska.

AMY GOODMAN: Why are you here in Washington, D.C.?

NATHAN BARING: So, I have lived in Alaska, in Fairbanks, my entire life. And I am completely a winter person. I grew up on snow. I grew up with consecutive weeks of 40 below. I grew up Nordic skiing, and I could pretty much Nordic ski by the time I was able to walk. And I’m here because I’m protecting that—those memories that I cherish, that I want to offer my children in their future and my grandchildren. And I feel like right now those—that ability is threatened.

AMY GOODMAN: Why?

NATHAN BARING: Climate change is having really adverse effects on Alaska right now, just in my backyard, I mean, in my—I mean, just around Fairbanks. The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the United States. And, I mean, our winters are getting shorter. The wildfire season is getting longer. It’s ravaging forests, coastal erosion. And I’m afraid that the effects that we are seeing now are only going to be amplified by the current administration and by the actions that our government is taking right now.

AMY GOODMAN: What grade are you in?

NATHAN BARING: I am a junior in high school.

AMY GOODMAN: And what kind of—where do your senators and congressmembers stand, whether they’re Republican or Democrat?

NATHAN BARING: So, I will actually say that Senator Lisa Murkowski, who is—I would say, is right now one of the most moderate Republicans in Congress, she has not taken a definite stand on this issue. But I will say that she is probably one of the most likely members of the congressional staff from Alaska to take this issue seriously. Senator—or Representative Don Young and Senator Dan Sullivan have both come out pretty openly against it. But I think there’s still very much some potential, and I’m looking forward to making bridges.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, you.

ALEX LOZNAK: Hi.

AMY GOODMAN: Your T-shirt—your sweatshirt says Columbia.

ALEX LOZNAK: Yes. Yeah, I go to Columbia in New York City. I’m a sophomore.

AMY GOODMAN: Columbia University.

ALEX LOZNAK: Yes. My name’s Alex Loznak. I grew—but I actually grew up in Oregon, where Our Children’s Trust is based. And in Oregon, we’re already facing devastating climate change impacts. We’re seeing—at my family’s farm, we had the three hottest summers ever recorded, were three years in a row. And so we lost crops. We lost some of our trees due to that. And we’re seeing massive forest fires, ocean acidification. These very delicate coastal ecosystems are already, you know, going to see these devastating impacts from climate change.

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you think you can accomplish here?

ALEX LOZNAK: I think we can really bring our message to decision-makers here in Washington, D.C., and say our constitutional rights are on the line. And our leaders have an obligation. Legally, constitutionally, they have to start reducing carbon emissions to protect our rights.

AMY GOODMAN: Why a lawsuit?

ALEX LOZNAK: Well, you know, we have three branches of government in this country, we all learn in fifth grade civics. Congress isn’t taking this seriously. The president thinks it’s a hoax invented by China. But the courts can really look at the evidence, look at the science, and then make a decision to protect our fundamental rights.

AMY GOODMAN: But President Trump talks about “so-called judges.” And I think the—

ALEX LOZNAK: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —attorney general, Jeff Sessions, just, in referring to a judge in Hawaii—

ALEX LOZNAK: Yeah, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —said, “How can a person on an island in the Pacific stop the president from doing what he wants to do?”

ALEX LOZNAK: Well, thankfully, we live in a country of laws and not a government of individuals, not a government—the whims of President Trump or Attorney General Sessions, those are going to be subject to a court that looks at the science, looks at the Constitution and makes a legal decision to protect us.

AMY GOODMAN: Last November, Federal Judge Ann Aiken in Eugene, Oregon, ruled the lawsuit could proceed. She wrote in her ruling, quote, “Federal courts too often have been cautious and overly deferential in the arena of environmental law and the world has suffered for it,” she said. One supporter of the lawsuit has been Dr. James Hansen, the former top climate scientist at NASA. From 1981 to 2013, he was the head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. He’s now the director of Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions at Columbia University’s Earth Institute and joins us in our New York studio.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Dr. Hansen.

JAMES HANSEN: Good to see you again.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you’ve been working on this for decades.

JAMES HANSEN: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: But you’re particularly focused—you’ve been working on the issue of climate change—on the next generation. Talk about the significance of this lawsuit.

JAMES HANSEN: Well, it’s clear the other branches of our government—the Congress and the president—are simply not going to do anything, unless we get the judiciary to step in and protect the fundamental rights of young people, because this is an intergenerational issue. The thing about climate is that it doesn’t respond quickly. As we change the composition of the atmosphere, because the ocean is four kilometers deep, the ice sheets are thick, it takes them decades, and even centuries, to respond. So what we’re doing is building in a huge climate response that will occur over coming decades and centuries, and so young people and their children will suffer the consequences. So, our political system doesn’t easily deal with problems that have that sort of time scale. But the science is so clear that we have to get the system to work. And that means we’ve got to bring the judiciary in, because they are less subject to the influence of fossil fuel money than the other two branches of government.

AMY GOODMAN: Judge Aiken’s ruling was very interesting. She made clear, “This lawsuit is not about proving that climate change is happening or that human activity is driving it. For purposes of this motion, those facts are undisputed.” And again, she added, “Federal courts too often have been cautious and overly deferential in the arena of environmental law and the world has suffered for it.” Talk about her approach to this and allowing this lawsuit, which began during the Obama years, mind you—right?—and has moved into Trump.

JAMES HANSEN: Well, it’s great to see a judge who does recognize the time scale of this problem and the fact that unless they do step in, it’s likely to—we’re going to build in consequences for young people that will then be out of their control. So, it’s a clear case where we need help from the judiciary. It’s somewhat analogous to civil rights cases half a century ago. But—

AMY GOODMAN: In what way?

JAMES HANSEN: Well, so, in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the judges found that civil rights of minorities were being violated. But it then took a long time before, finally, actions—when the public began to get in the street, in the 1960s, and object to what was going on, then action finally happened. Well, we can’t afford to have such a long delay now. So, it’s really important that this case go to court soon. And it’s scheduled now to go February 6th of 2018, so that’s soon.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to another one of the young plaintiffs, Aji Piper of Seattle, member of Earth Guardians’ Rising Youth for a Sustainable Earth.

AJI PIPER: What concerns me most about climate change is—I mean, it’s a very, like, hard thing, because you have to imagine, like, the future. And we know, like, if we don’t act on climate change, the world is not going to, like, end in like a flash and a bang. But what will end up happening is either my generation will feel the effects, where we have to fight for survival. On the Earth, you know, life will be very, very different. It won’t be like—we won’t be as privileged to live on the Earth. It will be a lot harder. But then also you think about, you know, we’re putting generations that haven’t been born yet and generations to come in the position where they have to deal with that, and that’s not a position anybody should be put in. And it’s just not fair. So it’s a moral, logical thing.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s Aji Piper of Seattle, one of the members of Earth Guardians’ Rising Youth for a Sustainable Earth. And I wanted to ask you, Dr. James Hansen, about this lawsuit. The request that they’re making is really based on your work. It asks a federal judge to order the government to write a recovery plan to reduce carbon emissions to 350 parts per million by 2100, down from 400 parts per million, and stabilize the climate system. Is this based on your numbers? And talk about this.

JAMES HANSEN: Yeah, it’s based on physics of the climate system. We observe now that the planet is out of energy balance. There’s more energy coming in from the sun than there is heat being radiated to space. And as long as that’s true, the planet is going to keep getting warmer. And the climate effects, that are already becoming significant, will get larger and larger. So, what we need to do in order to restore the planet’s energy balance is reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from its present more than 400 parts per million to about 350 parts per million. So, that is not going to be easy. It’s going to require that we reduce emissions of fossil fuel several percent a year and improve our agricultural and forestry practices so that we take up more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and into the soil and into the biosphere, into the forest. We need to reforest regions that have been deforested.

AMY GOODMAN: So, there has been a legal development. The Trump administration, proudly anti—you know, a proudly climate change-denying administration, has asked a federal appeals court to review Judge Aiken’s decision to proceed to trial. What’s the significance of this?

JAMES HANSEN: Well, it’s a highly unusual move for the court of appeals to intervene at this point, before trial has occurred. And I’m quite confident that they’re going to fail in this attempt, because, basically, what it would do is delay the process. And that’s exactly what we can’t let happen, because the longer that emissions continue at a high rate and continue to increase, we’re building in, for young people, consequences that are going to be out of their control. So I—we expect within a few weeks to get a ruling from this court of appeals, but I would expect that they will allow the district court to continue with the trial.

AMY GOODMAN: If this case does go to trial, will you be called to testify?

JAMES HANSEN: I think so, yes. I’ve already written my so-called expert report to—and submitted it —we’re submitting it now to the court.

AMY GOODMAN: There are also a number of state-level lawsuits, is that right? Like perhaps in all the states?

JAMES HANSEN: Well, in several different states. You never know where you’re going to have success sooner. So I think it’s useful to put pressure on the political system in several different places. But the most important case is the one against the federal government.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I wanted to ask you—we’re speaking, of course, in the time of this storm. Is it accurate to say—I mean, they’ve downgraded it from a hurricane to storm, but to call it superstorm, like Superstorm Sandy?

JAMES HANSEN: Well, it certainly was a superstorm, in many different ways, but yeah. And the human role in that storm is clear.

AMY GOODMAN: So, as an academic, as a scientist, can you talk about what it means to have a climate-denying administration? I mean at every level. For example, there are millions of dollars available for grants. Are you seeing that drying up? Are people seeing that all over the country drying out, climate research? And is the money actually going to other places to try to disprove it?

JAMES HANSEN: Well, I don’t know about that, but I do know that the funding has gone up and down over the last few decades in response to political considerations. But the science has continued to advance, and the science is so clear that there’s no reason that we shouldn’t be able to win the lawsuit. The science is clear enough.

AMY GOODMAN: And the effect of the Trump administration on people’s awareness? For example, almost immediately taking the words “climate change” and “global warming” off government websites, putting out the memos you can’t use these terms. Now, you’re very familiar with this.

JAMES HANSEN: Yeah, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go back decades. I mean, I was writing about you doing this, challenging the Bush administration vacuuming the words “global warming” off of government websites, and you dared to testify in Congress. Talk about the trajectory of what you were finding then and where we are today, over a decade later.

JAMES HANSEN: Yeah, well, it’s really unfortunate that we haven’t got action sooner, because enough was known decades ago that we realized that we can’t burn all the fossil fuels. If we—if we burn all the oil, gas and coal, we’ll produce a different planet. We would melt all the ice on the planet, and sea level would go up tens of meters. So, it’s been clear enough for a long time that we should begin to move to clean energies, to carbon-free energies. But that is resisted by the fossil fuel industry. And, unfortunately, two branches of our government are heavily influenced by the fossil fuel industry.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, you said that what we’re seeing, the Tropical Storm Harvey, is clearly a result of climate change.

JAMES HANSEN: Well, it’s clearly affected by climate change. Sea level is now, globally, eight inches higher than it would have been without global warming. And locally, in the regions like the Gulf and the eastern coast of the U.S., it’s a good foot higher. So that contributed to the storm surges. But also, the amount of rainfall is increased by the human effect. A warmer atmosphere holds more water vapor, and it’s a very nonlinear relation that—it goes up rapidly as the temperature goes up. So the rainfall totals are affected by humans. And the storm strengths are also affected by the excess water vapor in the atmosphere. The water vapor provides the fuel for thunderstorms, tornadoes and tropical storms. And so we’ve got more fuel driving stronger storms. And that’s observed to be occurring, as well as understood theoretically.

AMY GOODMAN: Isn’t the word “unpredictable” exactly what climate chaos, climate disruption causes? They use it to say you could never have predicted this.

JAMES HANSEN: You can’t predict exactly when and where events will occur. But the frequency and the strength of those events is clearly affected by the changes in atmospheric composition that humans are driving.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Dr. James Hansen, former top climate scientist at NASA, headed up the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, now the director of Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. This is Democracy Now! To see Dr. Hansen’s—the first part of our discussion, you can go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

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