Climate Science Goes to Court!


The Climate Science Goes to Court moderated panel discussion took place on February 27, 2019 at Optimism Brewery, Seattle, WA. Panelists were Andrea Rodgers, attorney with Our Children’s Trust, Pete Erickson, scientist with the Stockholm Environment Institute, and Stephen Gardiner, climate ethicist, and professor with the University of Washington Department of Philosophy. Moderator was P Sean McDonald, lecturer and researcher with the University of Washington College of the Environment.

[Note: Affiliations are provided for identification purposes only.]

Supplemental materials related to Climate Science Goes to Court held on: 60 Minutes News Coverage, the Climate Science on Tap Video, and Audience Q&A.

CBS News Report on the Juliana v US (Youth v Gov) land mark case from March 3, 2019.

The following questions were submitted by the audience after hearing from the panel, but due to time limitations, could not be answered at the event. The panelists have provided these written answers to more completely respond to questions posed by the audience.

Q: As a student what can I do to make people realize the importance of climate change and take action? 

A: I would make presentations about climate change at your school, and host events and speakers so that your fellow students, and also the teachers, can learn about climate change and the urgency of the crisis we face. We also have a lot of other opportunities that you can check out at: youthvgov.org. (A. Rodgers)

Q: Where do you see these court cases going? Are you confident there will be legislative change for 2050 goals or not sure? 

A: Well, I think that depends on how clear the Court is in terms of what the Climate Recovery Plan needs to accomplish. Hopefully the Court will say that it needs to include reductions based on best available science as that will then be the guide posts for the policy makers to implement. However, just like what happened in McCleary, it is very common that the policy makers don’t get it right on the first try, which is why having the court accept continuing jurisdiction over the case is critical. Our challenge here is that given the tremendous emergency that we face, we simply don’t have time for the policy makers to not get it right asap. What is the likelihood that if the court rules in the favor of the plaintiff, that legislators will neglect to make effective change?  (A. Rodgers)

Q: If we have run out of time and a court ordered solution might arrive years from now, is it time to move to another country? How do we behave in this emergency? 

A: How do we behave in this emergency? That’s a very difficult question and is a question many people are already facing. For example, the Village of Kivalina in Alaska is already being forced to relocate because of climate change impacts. The Federal government has done nothing to assist Kivalina and the leadership there has taken great strides in planning for their relocation. If you are interested in learning more about this process, I suggest you go to threedegreeswarmer.orgas they have played a vital role in helping to facilitate the relocation process in a culturally appropriate way.  (A. Rodgers)

Q: Does the injunction to stop drilling on all federal lands include a stop on tribal lands? (since they are held in trust by the federal government) 

A: It is unlikely this would be the case because although the federal government holds these lands in trust, many tribes have self-determination agreements such that the tribes are regulating many of these activities on tribal lands. That is a very complicated jurisdictional situation, compounded by the institutional racism that has occurred with respect to extraction of fossil fuels on Indian lands for decades. (A. Rodgers)

Q: What advice (if any) do you have for young and/or aspiring law students who are interested in environmental law? 

A: I would reach out to organizations whose work that you admire and sign up for internships/volunteer opportunities so you can get some real-world experience working on the topics that interest you. You will be able to take some wonderful classes but the practice of environmental law is so important and overwhelming right now, there are many opportunities out there for you to contribute and help push the work forward so that when you graduate, you can hit the ground running. 

Q: Where do you see these court cases going? Are you confident there will be legislative change for 2050 goals or not sure?

A: I am not confident in legislative change solving this problem without the assistance of the courts. History has shown that institutionalized problems like climate change require the participation of all three branches of government. The judicial branch needs to push the executive and legislative branches forward or else we just won’t get to where we need to go. (A. Rodgers)

Q: If we get a declaratory judgement, can the court dictate a timeline or carbon reduction goal? What can the court enforce? And what remedies are available? 

A: The Court can dictate a timeline, but is not likely to specify a carbon reduction goal, other than to say what is needed to protect the constitutional rights of the youth. The Court can enforce any and all of its orders, including the requirement that the federal government develop a climate recovery plan that protects the constitutional rights of youth. (A. Rodgers)

Q: Do you have expert witnesses familiar with the status of the Totten Glacier in East Antarctica? 

A: Yes, our expert witness who is very familiar with Totten is Dr. Eric Rignot, UC Irvine. (A. Rodgers)

Q: Where is the funding for the lawsuit coming from- is there a concern about the funding running out?

A: We (Our Children’s Trust) are a non-profit organization who actively fundraises for all of the costs associated with our litigation. We have individual donors as well as foundation support. Litigation is very expensive and we have been very fortunate to have a strong base of financial support and we will continue to work to broaden that base of support as the litigation costs continue to accuse, particularly as the case gets towards the United States Supreme Court.  (A. Rodgers)

Q: The remedies are weighted heavily towards reducing emissions of CO2. Beyond that, consuming CO2 or reversing the buildup of CO2, we need to rely on vegetation and trees to consume CO2. How does climate change or the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere affected the ability of carbon-based vegetation to absorb CO2?  

A: Yes, large-scale growth in forests is a critical component of pulling CO2 out of the atmosphere.  To some degree, higher concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere increase the ability of carbon-based vegetation to absorb CO2.  But that ability is limited. (Currently, the biosphere absorbs only about a quarter of annual anthropogenic CO2 emissions, see e.g. www.globalcarbonproject.org).  Furthermore, higher temperatures may put forests at increasing risk of fire, insects, and disease, which threaten their ability to be long-term sinks of carbon. (P. Erickson)

Q: Andrea showed a graph of cumulative emissions, and some lines were decreasing. Did I see that incorrectly? How is that possible? 

A: I am not sure about Andrea’s specific graph, but since overall, absolute cumulative CO2 emissions are definitely increasing, I wonder if the chart was showing cumulative share of CO2 emissions.  For that, major industrialized countries whose CO2 emissions have flattened or begun declining are contributing a slightly declining share of cumulative emissions, even as the absolute contribution is still going up.  (P. Erickson)

Q: There is a bill in congress now to tax carbon heavily. All funds return to American residences, equally! HR263- The Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act. Do you support taxation as a remedy? What considerations should be made to ensure that taxation policies are just and equitable.        

A: For me, the important thing to focus on is that we need to decarbonize very quickly, and the reason for this is the deep concerns about the injustice of our current trajectory, especially towards the most vulnerable, including the current poor, young people and future generations. Given this, we should not decarbonize in ways which are themselves unjust, or otherwise make things worse for vulnerable populations. Particular proposals for carbon taxes need to be assessed in this light. They might play a role in weaning us from fossil fuels, by providing incentives to pursue clean energy, but they need to be accompanied by appropriate protections. Many proposals try to move in this direction (e.g., tax and dividend approaches), and each one should be assessed for how far it achieves justice for the transition. Ultimately, however, we also need to keep an eye on the overall goal of decarbonization, without which we risk severe injustice to many, including (and perhaps especially) the less well off.    (S. Gardiner)       

Q: Critics of strong climate change policy cite impacts to jobs and the economy as a possibly downside, with disproportionate impacts on low-income groups. As an ethicist how do you respond?

A: Protecting human societies, and especially the least well-off, is a primary ethical objective of climate policy. So, this is really an issue about how best to achieve that. Severe climate change is highly likely to have profound effects on the economy, and may be catastrophic for some areas. It is also likely to have disproportionate impacts on low-income groups. Consequently, weak or non-existent climate policy poses a much greater threat to society and the less well off than sensible climate policies that pay attention to transitional justice. Thus, the critics you refer to tend to be either climate deniers or those who think that economic growth is largely immune to climate impacts, here and globally. Those attitudes seem very complacent in light of the mainstream science. In addition, many working on climate change believe that there are significant additional benefits to be gained from a transition away from fossil fuels (e.g., in terms of health effects). (S. Gardiner)