David Versus Goliath: Children Face Off Against The Giants Of Industry On Climate Change

On May 11, a group of children will face off against the Obama Administration and the National Association of Manufacturers for the latest round in a David vs. Goliath battle in federal court.

The kids filed a lawsuit last year against the Administration, arguing that common law requires governments to protect critical natural resources on behalf of current and future generations. In this case, the kids argue, the government has an inherent duty to protect the atmosphere from greenhouse gas emissions, and all of us from the impacts of global climate change.

In their lawsuit, a group called Our Children’s Trust filed against a who’s who of Administration officials, including EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, and Energy Secretary Steven Chu.

Earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Robert Wilkins ruled that the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) and several California businesses could intervene against the kids, based on the argument that limiting greenhouse gas emissions would lead to a “diminution or cessation of their businesses” — in other words, jeopardize their profit margins.

Now, NAM and the Administration have asked the judge to dismiss the case. That’s the motion to be considered in May.

Blogger Ben Jervey has done a good job describing the lawsuit’s background, including who the kids are and why they’re doing this, so I won’t go into it here.

But I am curious about an argument from one of the attorneys for the business group, who said that companies have a “legally protected cognizable interest to freely emit CO2.”

Of course, what is legal is not necessarily moral. But morality is the province of the clergy, not the courts. More to the point, it would seem that the public — present and future — has a “cognizable interest” to live without the natural disasters, health hazards, humanitarian tragedies and threats of war that are the likely results of climate change and that already are in evidence today.

Further, as unofficial co-plaintiffs in this case, we might all point out that while companies can resolve this problem by installing better emission controls, or using cleaner fuels, or changing the nature of their operations, the damages from greenhouse gas emissions are not so easily avoided. In fact, scientists tell us that some of the damages are irreversible.

At the heart of this case, it seems to me, is not whether current law permits corporations to willfully alter the atmosphere with their wastes. If we depend solely on political bodies to protect the climate, for example, then we will politicize the atmosphere as well as polluting it. The health of oceans, forests, fresh water supplies and soils — and consequently human beings — will all be subject to the whims and prejudices of politicians.

The real issue is whether the health of the natural systems and resources that all of us “own” is protected by a doctrine that transcends the interests of any one industry, the statutes of any one congress, the actions of any administration, or the abdication of responsibility by any of them.

As a 65-year-old, I am embarrassed that our children now feel obligated to face off against the giants of industry, the government and all their lawyers. These kids are stepping in where the elders in Washington and the international community have feared to tread.

But it’s also heartening. This lawsuit could establish the idea that protecting a global life-support system from irreparable harm is a higher priority than corporate profits — profits derived by making us all pay the true price of spewing greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s our kids who will have to live with the court’s ultimate decision. But it’s in all of our interest for Judge Wilkins to allow the lawsuit to proceed.

Bill Becker is Executive Director of the National Sustainable Communities Coalition in Washington, D.C., and a senior associate at Natural Capitalism Solutions in Colorado.

5 Responses to David Versus Goliath: Children Face Off Against The Giants Of Industry On Climate Change

  1. This embodies an ethical failure to protect the future of our children and the future of our species.

    This is a very important lawsuit. Interesting to see if the courts rule… of course, our Constitution was written for “”…ourselves and our posterity”

    Interesting times

  2. Sasparilla says:

    It’ll be interesting to see how this proceeds, although I think with respect to the analogy at the beginning of the article, the lawsuit has significantly less of a chance of beating the industry and its politicians than David had of beating Goliath.

  3. M Tucker says:

    We have tampered with the natural carbon cycle by unrestricted and unregulated pumping of CO2 into the atmosphere. This is disrupting the climate and acidifying the oceans. It is happening now but the most devastating results will plague the futures of our children, grandchildren, and their descendants. That is the legacy we have left them but we can, should and must put an end to this practice. I wonder what sort of restrictions the lawsuit will place on industry? Unless we end CO2 and all other GHG emissions we will not “protect critical natural resources.” Efforts to limit GHG emissions will only slow their rate of increase. Chu knows this. I’m pretty sure Jackson knows this. I’m not convinced President Obama is aware of what is really required. BUT if a law is required then it becomes a political issue. You cannot avoid the politics.

    You cannot protect people from natural disasters even if “the public has a “cognizable interest” to live without the natural disasters.” BUT this is NOT A NATURAL DISASTER, it is a man-made disaster!

    Historically industry has always maintained it has a “legally protected cognizable interest to freely…” spew whatever it likes into the environment and it is only through legal action based on laws passed by politicians that has put an end to it. No matter transcendent the issue is.

  4. nikki says:

    Here’s a thought for a new paradigm. Biomimicry. Nature recycles everything it produces in an ongoing, constructive closed loop system. If industry were to follow the tenants of biomimicry by law..we wouldn’t be in this mess. Let’s re-write the rules.


  5. Dale dewar says:

    Didn’t every progressive thinking person just choke when the economists said of the financial meltdown, “no one saw it coming”. We did. We did because we know that infinite growth in a finite environment is not possible. Now, how can we get the economists to listen? In the meantime: support the Tobin tax, support the Occupy Movement even if you don’t understand them (maybe join them for a day), learn to live lightly upon the earth!