It is of course routine for people who suffer damages due to the mistakes of others to seek protective legal help, but can the entire young generation faced with unprecedented ecological ruin also seek legal intervention for ensuring them safer environment in keeping with their constitutional right to life and liberty?
This is the extremely significant question now being discussed in the context of a case being fought in the courts of Oregon, USA. Writers Naomi Klein and Bill Mckibben have called this case “the most important legal case on the planet right now.”
On one side of this case is top climate scientist James Hansen with 21 plaintiffs from the young generation, including his granddaughter Sophie Kivlehan. On the other side are the American government and the fossil fuel industry.
In this classic David vs. Goliath case the first round was won with a lot of fanfare and teenage enthusiasm by Hansen, and this is when the case started attracting a lot of attention.
This happened last April 8 in a packed courtroom with more youths lining up outside when the court rejected the pleas of the federal government and the fossil fuel industry to dismiss the case.
Earlier while bringing in the motion to dismiss the lawsuit the federal government and the fossil fuel industry had denied any duty under the Constitution or the public trust doctrine to protect essential natural resources, such as air and oceans, for the benefit of all present and future generations.
Federal District Court Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin, while disallowing the motion for the dismissal of the case, wrote, “If the allegations in the complaint are to be believed, the failure to regulate the emissions has resulted in a danger of constitutional proportions to the public health. “He also called the lawsuit “unprecedented”.
Nineteen year old plaintiff Kelsey Juliana said in a statement after this verdict, “This will be the case of the century as it will determine if we have a right to a liveable future, or if corporate power will continue to deny our rights for the sake of their own wealth.”
Our Children’s Trust, a non-profit organization devoted to similar efforts to reduce emissions and safeguard the future of next generations has also played an important role in this legal battle.
In this case Dr. James Hansen has appeared as a guardian of the young generation. He is eminently qualified to fulfill this role as one of the most respected voices on climate change. A former NASA scientist who quit to devote his life to draw attention to the fast accelerating climate change crisis, Dr. Hansen has also been with the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Columbia University. Winner of the Nierenberg prize, he was also Director of the Climate Science Awareness and Solutions Programme at the Earth Institute, Columbia University.
However what makes him particularly suitable for this role as a guardian of the young generation is that he has never hesitated to take an anti-establishment position in the entire debate on climate change. While experts generally tend to speak along lines of what is agreed to in international conferences, Dr. Hansen has been much more independent and even vociferous in saying, with a lot of evidence and data, how the existing efforts to check climate change are not at all adequate.
In his latest paper written with several other scientists Dr. Hansen has emphasized the huge burden which current failure to check climate change adequately will impose on the future generations. This paper titled ‘Young People’s Burden-the Requirement of Negative CO2 Emissions’ argues that current failure to control emissions will pose very great risks and very difficult choices for the future generations. They will have to bear very heavy costs of climate change, or else they will be driven to taking up new CO2 extraction steps which can be very costly and risky, even though their effectiveness is uncertain.
In fact the existing evidence suggests that we are already very close to the stage beyond which catastrophic climate change is likely to change life sustaining conditions on our planet. Hence the case for the young generation to seek legal protection for their right to safe life is a very strong one. The young plaintiffs of USA have approached a law court to protect their right to safe life at the right time. To help them in presenting all the available evidence regarding how serious a threat is posed by climate change and related ecological ruin, they could not have asked for a better guide and guardian than Dr. Hansen.
Hence the stage is now set for a very important legal battle which will raise important issues of an ecologically safe future for the coming generations. Concerned people and youth everywhere will be pursuing this courtroom battle for a safer future or perhaps even for sheer survival with a lot of interest, So much is at stake. In fact these young plaintiffs are struggling not just for their own generation but for all future generations, not just for human beings but for all forms of life.
The writer is a free-lance journalist who has been involved with several social movements and activists.