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They Knew. So What?

Updated: May 22, 2022

One might think that it’s the oil, gas and coal companies that are to blame for creating our climate crisis, but as Gus Speth’s book, They Knew, demonstrates, our government agencies were the ones that allowed it to happen. They not only ignored reliable scientific research, but they also supported our use and dependence on sources of energy that increased global warming.

Most of us know parts of the story or stories. In an early chapter of my soon to be published book, Climate of Justice, I share Brian Howard’s list of 48 environmental victories since the first Earth Day in 1972. There have been victories for the environment from the Clean Water Act of 1972 to the removal of grizzlies from the Endangered Species list in 2014. We certainly would be much worse off without these “victories,” but they have not prevented us from moving toward an unsustainable future

It may be true that we get the government we deserve, but our children and grandchildren have said that they deserve something better. In demonstrations, hearings and lawsuits, young people have demanded that governments stop the destruction of the planet and protect their habitat. Part of the significance of Speth’s book is its inclusion in the legal case of Julianna v United States.

Julianna v United States.

In 2015, the non-profit law firm, Our Children’s Trust, filed a complaint against the Federal government for violating the constitutional rights of 21 young plaintiffs whose lives had been adversely affected by the government’s policies of ignoring clear evidence of global warming and advancing the use of fossil fuels. The plaintiffs belonged to the youth movement that has drawn our attention to what current environmental policies are doing to their future. To the surprise of many, in 2016, a District Judge in Oregon laid out an argument that supported their case. In Juliana v United States, Judge Ann Aiken wrote the following:

“This action is of a different order than the typical environmental case. It alleges that [the federal government's] actions and inactions—whether or not they violate any specific statutory duty—have so profoundly damaged our home planet that they threaten plaintiffs’ fundamental constitutional right to life and liberty.”

“Plaintiffs have alleged that defendants played a significant role in creating the current climate crisis, that defendants acted with full knowledge of the consequences of their actions, and that defendants have failed to correct or mitigate the harms they helped create in deliberate indifference to the injuries caused by climate change. They may therefore proceed with their substantive due process challenge to defendant’s failure to adequately regulate CO2 emission”

“I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society”

“Where a complaint alleges government action is affirmatively and substantially damaging the climate system in a way that will cause human deaths, shorten human lifespans, result in widespread damage to property, threaten human food sources, and dramatically altered the planet’s ecosystem, it states a claim for a due process violation. To hold otherwise would be to say that the Constitution affords no protection against a government’s knowing decision to poison the air its citizens breathe or the water its citizens drink.” (Speth, 158-159).

We now know that “they knew,” but so what? So, our government has violated the rights of its people, and if judges uphold the rule of law, there will be consequences. Since 2016, the case has encountered one barrier after another, but it is still on its feet. If you would like to keep track of future developments, visit Our Children’s Trust website.

While the future of this case is unknown, it has increased our knowledge, or at least refreshed our memory. Our democracy depends on the rule of law. True, laws have been used to maintain criminal social relationships, but they can also be used to promote justice and to protect the rights of children to a viable future.

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