Three weeks ago the 9th US Circuit Court heard oral arguments in the Juliana v. the US case filed in 2015 by 21 children who petitioned the court to require the federal government to protect their Constitutional rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness by addressing the climate crisis. In its defense, the US argued the plaintiffs have “no fundamental constitutional right to a stable climate system,” or a “climate system capable of sustaining human life.”
It appears plaintiffs’ lives are in fact not protected. A recently published essay in The New England Journal of Medicine by Harvard’s Dr. Renee Salas and her colleagues concluded, “climate change is the greatest public health emergency in our time and is particularly harmful to fetuses, children and adolescents.” This is because recent reports including the US’s National Climate Assessment, the United Nations’ (UNs’) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC’s) “Global Warming of 1.5ºC” and Lancet’s “Countdown on Human Health and Climate Change” all describe in agonizing detail rapid atmospheric warming from currently 1º Celsius to 2º Celsius within the next few decades is causing increasing flooding, wildfires, disease, starvation, forced migration and war. According to a recent Carbon Brief study, the carbon budget of a child born today will have to be one-eighth that of one born in 1950 if today’s child wants to live in a world that is less than 2º Celsius warmer.
The Juliana case along with numerous related others was decades overdue. Since Ronald Reagan, the Republican party has denied or worked to undermine the life-extinguishing effects of atmospheric warming. President Trump summarized his recent 90-minute discussion on the topic with Prince Charles by stating, “the US right now has among the cleanest climates.” (The US ranks 10th in the world in air quality.) He refused to recognize climate science stating, “I believe there’s a change in weather and I think it changes both ways.”
Incoherent rhetoric aside, the US Geological Survey recently decided to project climate crisis impacts only through 2040 rather than to the end of the century to avoid detailing the worst impacts of Anthropocene warming. More recently still the administration announced it will eliminate Obama-era tail pipe emission regulations despite protests by the auto industry. In a draft environmental impact statement published by the Department of Transportation last summer, the administration admitted global temperatures will rise by 4º Celsius by 2100 absent drastic remediation – and used the admission as an argument to loosen auto emission restrictions.
To make matters worse, though the Democratic Party has not formally declared independence from reality, the climate crisis remains a non-priority. As Nathaniel Rich suggests his just-published book, Losing Earth, the party has regressed since Jimmy Carter charged the National Commission on Air Quality to develop climate legislation. Current Democratic leader House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer have created special climate crisis committees though they have no legislative authority. Related House hearings are being held during which members learned, for example, atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations were last this high three million years ago when the planet was 2º to 3º Celsius warmer, sea levels were 75 feet higher and beech trees grew in Antarctica, and learned the current rate of warming is unprecedented in over 50 million years. The Chair of the Energy and Commerce’s Environment and Climate Change Subcommittee, Rep. Paul Tonko, released a beyond pathetic four-page “framework for climate action” and he, along with Senator Brian Schatz, Chair of the Senate Special Committee, plan on producing climate crisis-related “reports” sometime next year. The House Democrats along with three Republicans passed in early May HR 9, a bill directing the White House develop a plan to meet the goals set by the 2015 Paris climate accord. All this is irrelevant since these efforts amount to nothing more than messaging. The Congress is not interested in wielding power or as Yuval Levin argued recently in a New York Times editorial, members are instead interested in acting simply as commenters.
Meaningful action would amount to voting on climate crisis-related legislation. Sadly, there will be no votes on HR 763, a bill that calls for a carbon emissions tax with revenues payed out to citizens. The bill has just 40 cosponsors despite the fact over 75 business leaders representing $2.5 trillion in economic activity recently lobbied the Congress in support of carbon pricing and despite the fact 75% of Republicans under age 40 support 763’s tax and reimburse formula. (For comparison, Rich notes the Congress introduced 32 climate bills in 1988.)
One might think Speaker Pelosi would want to put Republicans on record for voting against maintaining life on earth. She apparently does not. Democratic behavior may be best understood by Speaker Pelosi’s refusal to hold a floor vote on the non-binding Green New Deal resolution, or as she termed it the “Green Dream.” As a related aside, it is worth noting not one of the Speaker’s 50-plus press releases in May commented on the UN’s May 6th 1,800-page report detailing the collapse of our biosphere, confirming our planet is presently experiencing its sixth mass extinction. Five of the previous mass extinctions were also caused by high CO2 concentrations, the worst of these ended 96% of all marine life.
Some argue the 79-year-old Speaker wants to avoid having her caucus walk the plank on bills DOA in the Senate. This theory is belied by the fact in 2018 Democrats held seats in only 13 districts won by Trump in 2016 and lost only three. As for the Senate Democrats, when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell brought the Green New Deal resolution, what he termed a “fantasy novel,” up for a floor vote, the Democrats, less four who voted with the Republicans, could only manage to vote “present.”
As for the two dozen Democratic presidential candidates, not one has to date supported a carbon tax. (For integrating climate change into economic analysis, Bill Nordhaus and Paul Romer won the 2018 Nobel prize for economics.) Since the party has decided against any single-issue debates, there will be no dedicated climate crisis discussion. Despite all that has been learned over the past two years, for example by limiting global warming to 1.5º instead of 2º Celsius we will avert 150 million premature deaths, this repeats the failure of the 2016 campaign. (The Paris goal is to limit warming to 2º Celsius.)
Beyond the political parties the news media shares some culpability. In 2016 candidates were not queried on the topic; between 2017 and 2018 broadcast coverage of the climate crisis dropped 45 percent; and, last year the four major TV broadcasters combined spent less than three hours on the topic. No 2018 Pultizer awardee (nor finalist) reported on the climate crisis possibly because less than half of the country’s largest newspapers covered publication of the IPCC report last fall.
All this however may just be academic. Though unreported by The New York Times and The Washington Post, in March the UN released a paper that concluded winter temperatures over the Arctic will increase an additional 3º to 5º Celsius. The Arctic is already warming at two times the rate of the rest of the planet. This is could, the paper concluded, trigger positive feedback loops that in turn could cause runaway global warming. As UN Environment Director Joyce Msuya stated, “What happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic.”
The UN’s IPCC report did not account for the effects of feedback loops because of the lack of scientific consensus concerning how to model these, nor has the Congress heard related testimony. Among other feedback loops the albedo effect occurs when decreasing solar radiation-reflecting white ice causes sea water to absorb more heat, warmer sea temperatures in turn accelerate the decrease in solar-reflecting ice. Likely more problematic is the release of massive amounts of greenhouse gasses particularly methane (a far more powerful greenhouse gas) from thawing permafrost that covers about 20 percent of the Northern Hemisphere’s land mass. Permafrost thaw is accelerated by both meltwater and unprecedented Arctic tundra and boreal forest fires. It is estimated that even if 10 percent of Arctic-stored carbon was released it would raise atmospheric greenhouse gas levels by a factor of three. This dynamic led to a recent Yale Climate Connections article titled “The Permafrost Bomb Is Ticking” to state, “it is likely a decent guess to speculate that the permafrost and indeed the Arctic as a whole, is already at or very near a tipping point.” The article concluded, “By acting now, and on a frantic global scale we just might be able to delay the tipping and climatic domino effect from taking hold.”
While the administration insists Americans have no right to a “climate system capable of sustaining human life, approximately 3,500 entities including states, cities, businesses, universities, collectively termed subnationals and largely operating under the banner “We Are Still In,” are working to fulfill the US pledge under the Paris agreement to reduce carbon emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. Subnational commitments combined with still-in-effect federal policies will not add up to meeting the now outdated Paris pledge. Even worse, subnationals cannot replace the federal government’s diplomatic influence. Lack of US leadership substantially compromises the world’s ability to adequately address the climate crisis. As Kate Aronoff concluded in a May 31st Dissent essay, “The climate crisis is the foundation on which the politics of the twenty-first century will be built.” The US it appears wants no part in this debate.
For Juliana and her Z generation colleagues it increasingly appears their D-Day will have to be defined as Dream-Day.