The state of Washington has a legal obligation to protect its citizens from the negative impacts of climate change. Eight Seattle high school students have already established this in court, three times. After their last victory, on May 16, 2016, King County Superior Court Judge Hollis R. Hill ordered the state to adopt “a rule to limit the state’s greenhouse gas emissions in Washington” by the end of the year. After some delay, the Washington Department of Ecology “released an updated version of the state’s first-ever rule to cap carbon pollution” using the same outdated scientific data that prompted the lawsuits.
“Our rule proposes that, on average, organizations and businesses reduce their emissions 1.7% annually,” said Camille St. Onge, from Ecology’s communications department.
“The courts said we have a right to a clean and safe future and that would mean a 6% to 8% reduction (for the United States) or a little bit less than that in Washington. She basically told them to work with us,” said Gabriel Mandell, a middle school student from Seattle.
“Emission reductions of only 1.7% per year are not much different than business as usual,” said Dr. James Hansen, director of the Climate Science, Awareness, and Solutions program at Columbia University. “They would leave young people with an intolerable burden to somehow suck enormous quantities of CO2 from the air if they are to avoid a climate system running out of control. The state should live up to its obligations to young people, reducing emissions 8% per year, which is what the science indicates is needed to stabilize the climate.”
“In order for the rule to be effective, it should be five to six times stronger and work five to six times faster than 1.7%. It also needs to accommodate all of the emissions, and right now the rule does not accommodate all of the emissions. Out of state oil companies are not counted, but all emissions have to be counted if it is going to be a strong rule,”said Aji Piper, another plaintiff and Seattle high school student.
“Current standards don’t even include transportation pollution, which accounts for nearly half of the state’s carbon emissions. Information from leading climate scientist James Hansen says that’s only about a third of what Washington needs to do. Yet Ecology denied our petition without even looking at the science,” Mandell wrote in an OP-ED published by Huffington Post.
Their attorney, Andrea Rodgers, of Western Environmental Law Center, agrees, “This rule doesn’t even come close to fulfilling Ecology’s legal responsibility to protect the constitutional rights of young people in this state.”
“I do question whether, as a public official dealing with this life or death issue of climate change, is Ecology Director Maia Bellon violating her duty to be truthful and really let the people know what the situation is? It is not okay for her to misrepresent the facts to the public,” said Julia Olson, Executive Director of Our Children’s Trust. [4. Roy L Hales interview with Julia Olson, Executive Director of Our Children’s Trust]
“Judge Hill did not find us in contempt, nor did she find us committing fraud. What you are hearing about is that we needed to incorporate some updates into our original draft rule,” said St. Onge.
Origins of the suit
This origins of the suit go back to 2014, when the youth petitioned the government to draw up a carbon emissions standard based on the best and current science, which they felt was Dr James Hansen’s.
“They denied our petition, saying they had alternatives. Those alternatives were the current admission standards, which use eleven-year-old science,” explained Mandell.
Western Environmental Law Center undertook their case on a pro-bono basis.
Our Children’s Trust raised the funds to pay for all the hard costs, like court fees and transcripts.
“We are relying on public support to make this all happen. We primarily receive donations from individuals, but we also get grants from foundations,” said Olson.
In her order to the state, Judge Hill quoted Ecology’s December 2014 report, “Climate change is not a far off risk. It is happening now globally and the impacts are worse than previously predicted, and are forecast to worsen . . . If we delay action by even a few years, the rate of reduction needed to stabilize the global climate would be beyond anything achieved historically and would be more costly.”
Plant For The Planet
Mandell and the other seven plaintiffs – Zoe and Stella Foster, Aji and Adonis Piper, Wren Wagenbach, Lara Fain and Jenny Zhu – are all members of Plant For The Planet, an international organization which is fighting climate crisis by planting trees around the world. (A tally on their website said “14,195,044,996 Trees planted” when I checked it.) Though there are more than twenty members in the Seattle chapter, aged 5 to 15, their contribution to the overall tally is small.
“On average, I’d say we usually get seven or eight days a year when we can plant trees. Usually we are planting on hilly terrain, you have to find the right spots and on top of planting the trees we have to protect them from mountain beavers. So we’d put these plastic tube things around the trees, to stop the beavers from eating them,” said Piper.
“Our plan is to plant a trillion trees, keep fossil fuels in the ground and fight for planet justice. We go to rallies, we give speeches, we have talked to the Governor before, we have spoken with Seattle city council, we hold academies where we can train more youth, we do a lot of stuff,” said Mandell.
The website for the Seattle chapter is called Climate Change For Families.
Change His Mind
The plaintiffs hope Governor Inslee will do what is needed to protect his people from the impacts of climate change, but they are prepared to take the state of Washington back to court.
“To the Governor, I would say this rule is not even close to what we need for our rights to a clean and health-filled future. Please, you know what is right. Please, do it,” said Mandell.
He added, “To the people, I would say we don’t need people screaming at the governor, but the thing that could make him change his mind is if a mass of people tell him to do the right thing. Call him; email him; make videos. Tell him what he is doing right now is not enough. He has a duty to protect all the children in Washington state.”
Image Credits: Top: Andrea Rodgers (attorney), Zoe Foster, Aji Piper, Gabe Mandell, Stella Foster, Adonis Piper and Lara Fain – Courtesy Our Children’s Trust; Youtube: “Capping and reducing carbon pollution – rule update,” Washington Department of Ecology; Third: Graph showing that Washington’s proposed emissions rule is inadequate – Courtesy WA Dept of Ecology twitter feed;Fourth: The two women are (l) Andrea Rodgers, Western Environmental Law Centre and Julia Olson, executive director and chief legal counsel at Our Children’s Trust. The children are: Athena Fain (not a plaintiff), and plaintiffs Gabe Mandell, Wren Wagenbach, Adonis Piper and Lara Fain – Courtesy Our Children’s Trust; Fifth: (l to r) Zoe Foster, Aji Piper, Gabe Mandell, and Adonis Piper – Courtesy Our Childrens Trust;Last: (l to r) Gabe Mandell, Adonis Piper, Aji Piper and attorney Andrea Rodgers – Courtesy Our Children’s Trust