Teenagers targeting big oil and the US Government in landmark climate lawsuit

Plaintiffs hope President Obama may cut a deal to "hold the Trump administration in check" on climate policy

Teenagers targeting big oil and the US Government in landmark climate lawsuit

Plaintiffs in the Federal Climate Lawsuit Image: Robin Loznak

With the election of Donald Trump to the White House heralded as a potential disaster by environmentalists all over the world, a group of American kids are taking the battle away from politics - and all the way to the Supreme Court.

The group of 21 youths - ranging in age from nine to 20-years-old - are suing the United States Federal Government in what advocates are calling, “the biggest case in the world.”

The plaintiffs claim that by failing to regulate greenhouse gas pollution - despite detailed knowledge of the dangers posed by climate change - the US government is violating the youngest generation’s constitutional right to life, liberty and property.

The landmark lawsuit in Eugene, Oregon is opposed by the US government alongside a veritable who’s who of the world’s largest fossil fuel industry groups - the National Association of Manufacturers, the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers and the American Petroleum Institute.

One of the youths behind the lawsuit, 19-year-old Jacob Lebel from Roseburg, Oregon told Newstalk that, by going to court, the youths hope to put a human face on the climate emergency and inspire other young people around the world.

Jacob Lebel, 19, Eugene, Oregon. Image: Robin Loznak 

“The argument that we are making here is quite literally whether my generation and my children’s generation have the right to a planet and a climate system that is capable of sustaining human life and society,” he said.

There is overwhelming and long-established evidence that burning fossil fuels and deforestation causes the release of heat-trapping gases, therefore causing the global climate to warm.

Surveys of peer-reviewed scientific writing on the subject show 97% - 98% of scientists agree that humans are the cause of this warming.

Mr Lebel said the lawsuit aims to give a voice to a generation whose future is being destroyed - and put a face on the children that will have to live with the consequences.

“Climate change and carbon emissions are really hard to deal with for a lot of people; I think because you can’t really see it.

“By the time we see the full effects and feel the full magnitude of the planetary changes, it will be far too late to do anything about it.”

While the case was initiated against the Obama administration, Mr Lebel said the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency is “horrific for climate policy” and will only serve to make the action all the more important.

The litigants have gone as far as to set up an online petition calling for President Obama to come to the table before the end of his term - and make a deal that could hold the Trump administration in check.

The President has called climate change, “the greatest threat to future generations” and the youths are hopeful he will now move to back up that rhetoric.

It is hoped a settlement would allow the court to oversee the creation of a new national science -based climate recovery plan - something that could allow Mr Obama to protect his climate legacy before leaving office.

“What we are arguing in this case is that the Obama administration has failed to live up to the standards set by his own words,” said Mr Lebel.

“But really, he has been talking the same way we have and in light of a Donald Trump presidency, we don’t see why he wouldn’t want to come to the table and reach a settlement.”

Activists stage a protest against man-made emissions of carbon dioxide and other global warming gases, at the COP22 climate change conference in Marrakech, 16-11-2016. Image: Mosa'ab Elshamy AP/Press Association Images

Like many of the details surrounding the Trump administration, the future president’s plans for climate policy are still shrouded in uncertainty.

Recent interviews suggest he may pull back from his now infamous claim that climate change is a “hoax” created by the Chinese to stifle US industry; however, a large part of his platform for election was built around plans to rapidly increase U.S. production of fossil fuels, including coal.

In an interview with the New York Times earlier this week, Trump suggested he now believes “there is some connectivity” between the actions of humans and the warming planet and insisted he “has an open mind” on America’s involvement in the Paris Climate Accord.

However, his appointment of noted climate change denier Myron Ebell to lead his transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency has done little to quell the fears of activists and scientists alike and his likely picks for interior secretary - a position that includes the power to grant fossil fuel exploration permits on federal land - look no better

Doug Domenech, the director of a pro-fossil fuel lobby group, will lead his transition team for the department and the likes of former Alaska Governor, Sarah Palin - who made famous the slogan, ‘drill baby, drill’ during her failed bid for the vice-presidency - and oil executive Harold Hamm are also in the hat for the position.

Of far deeper concern however, is the news that the President-elect is poised to strip NASA’s Earth Science Division of funding as part of a crackdown on “politicised science.”

The funding is set to be redirected towards the exploration of deep space - with the president-elect setting a goal of exploring the entire solar system by the end of the century.

This would mean the elimination of NASA’s world-renowned research into temperature, ice, clouds and other climate phenomena.

NASA’s network of satellites provide a wealth of information on climate change and in an interview with the Guardian, Kevin Trenberth, senior scientist at the US National Centre for Atmospheric Research said the plans, “could put us back into the ‘dark ages’ of almost the pre-satellite era.”

“We live on planet Earth and there is much to discover, and it is essential to track and monitor many things from space,” he said.

“Information on planet Earth and its atmosphere and oceans is essential for our way of life. 

Greenpeace spokesperson Perry Wheeler told Newstalk the President-elect is “not convincing anyone with his empty rhetoric about reconsidering his stance on climate change.”

“He has shown his true intentions through the climate deniers and oil industry lobbyists he has appointed to his transition team,” he said.

“He has shown his true intentions through his plans to cut funding for NASA climate research and he has shown his true intentions through the fossil fuel industry Cabinet picks he is considering.  

“Unchecked, President Trump could eliminate the clean power plan, abolish the Environmental Protection Agency, and pull us out of the landmark Paris Climate Agreement.  This is an urgent wake-up call for people power.”

Video: NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre

It is a wake-up call that is being heard loud and clear in Eugene, Oregon.

Mr Lebel said Trump has been “so blatant in his denial of climate change” that his presidency can provide a platform for people to speak out.

“I am quite worried; but at the same time, I am profoundly hopeful for the future because I see all these conscious, aware and empowered young people standing up all over the world to combat this issue,” he said.

He said now is a time for action, warning, “the fact of the matter is that we do not have time on our side:”

“I feel like this election has pushed me to reach out to people in rural areas, maybe with less access to education, people with more conservative views and say that our message is one of unity.

The Oregon lawsuit is one of a number of actions around the world assisted by non-profit group, Our Children’s Trust (OCT).

The organisation supports “pro bono attorneys and youth around the world” in bringing legal actions to hold governments accountable on climate change.

There are cases underway in a range of countries including Pakistan, the Netherlands, Norway, Belgium, Ukraine and Uganda.

The group is developing further actions in France, Australia, England, Canada and India - and OCT Global Programme Manager, Elizabeth Brown said there is, “potential for Irish youths to get involved.”

“All of the cases we support at Our Children’s Trust look for the duty of care that government owes to its people and to future generations,” she said.

She said nearly every legal framework in the world includes an “inherent obligation” for the government to protect the rights of its citizens and their, “core interest in survival and survival resources, like air, water, oceans, shorelines, and climate.”

Mr Lebel echoed that sentiment saying: “Any people that have a sovereign government and a judicial system can bring these types of cases.”

“Very frankly, it is obvious that we are destroying our ecological support systems,” he said.

He said the youths believe the legal challenges can serve to drum up awareness around climate issues and encourage others to get involved in the debate at “a local level in your own community or at a national, political level” and encourage lawmakers to take a lead in renewable development.

“Yes, Donald Trump’s presidency is horrific for climate policy,” he said. “But it is also an opportunity.”

Graphic: NASA Climate Change website