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Young People’s Burden: Dr James Hansen & Sophie Kivlehan (with transcript)

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[JH] Hi, I’m Jim Hansen, Director of the Climate Science Awareness and Solutions program at the Columbia University Earth Institute and this is my oldest grandchild, Sophie

[SK] Hi, I’m Sophie Kivlehan.  My grandfather and I are two  of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed by Our Children’s Trust against the federal government for not protecting the rights of young people.   The founders of our nation in the preamble of the Constitution said that it was to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity”.  The Constitution guarantees equal protections under the laws for all people.   Young people are people.  The Constitution says that nobody should be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. But that is exactly what’s happening today.  We young people are being handed a situation in which our prospects for the future, literally our lives, liberty, property and pursuit of happiness – concepts dear to our country’s founders – are threatened by our government’s actions.

[JH] Those are strong assertions but we will make clear the consequences of US government actions for young people and why the courts need to step in as  they did in the case of civil rights.  Let’s start with the science.  I will discuss data on global climate change and global energy use and Sophie will discuss implications, especially for young people.  I have been joined by some of the top relevent scientists in the world in submitting a paper, Young People’s Burden, as a discussion paper to Earth System Dynamics discussion. We draw attention to a staggering implication of governmental failure to take effective action on climate change.  All nations agreed in the 1992 framework convention on climate change to limit fossil fuel emissions to avoid dangerous human made climate change. Twenty three years later, in Paris last December, they agreed on almost the same thing and clapped each other on the back. Meanwhile, emissions had increased faster and faster.  Behind the scenes the United Nations energy and climate experts quietly realized there is now no way to stabilize climate without negative emissions.  So UN scenarios now assume massive technological co2 extraction, sucking CO2 from the air.

[SK] They assume today’s young people will do this in the future but takes energy to extract CO2 from the air.  It will be slow and expensive. The cost, even with optimist technology assumptions, is estimate  at hundreds of trillions of dollars if high fossil fuels emissions continue.  That is not fair.  Today’s adults benefit from fossil fuel burning and leave the waste for young people to clean up. That is why we filed a law suit against the government. Instead of protecting young people the government works together with the fossil fuel industry which has jumped into this legal case to act as an Intervener   with high priced lawyers in support of the government. This is a tragic situation because if the government simply did it’s job, collecting a rising carbon fee from the fossil fuel industry, to make the price of fossil fuels honest clean energies would grow rapidly and CO2 emissions would decline rapidly.

[JH] Let’s look closer at the science. Global temperatures today are 1.3 degrees Celsius warmer than the pre-industrial temperature defined by the 1880-1920 average. Uncertainty in defining the pre-industrial base period effects the result by only a tenth of a degree.  Temperature this year is elevated by the warm phase of the natural oscillation of tropical pacific temperatures but the background global temperature is almost 1.1 degree Celsius relative to preindustrial. It is still possible to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees but only if governments begin to take climate change seriously, reducing fossil fuel emissions and take other actions that we will describe. The world is now warmer than at any previous time in the Holocene, the inter-glacial period  with stable sea level for the last several thousand years as civilization developed.  Temperatures are now similar to that in the Eemian period one hundred and twenty thousand years ago when sea level was six to nine meters, twenty to third feet, higher than today. Earth’s history shows that sea level adjusts within a few centuries to  change of global temperature and if we allow continued  high emissions temperature will rise well above the Eemian level  and forcing on ice sheet will be so strong that rapid ice sheet disintegration and sea level rise is likely. In a recent paper, several of the top relevant scientists and I argued that multi-meter sea level rise is likely in 50 to 150 years, if high as usual fossil fuel emissions continue.

[SK] Sea level rise of several meters is practically locked in, it would just be a matter of time. The social disruption and economic effects of such sea level rise are incalculable.  Most of the world’s large cities are located on the coastline. These cities would become dysfunctional even tho parts of the city would stay above the water. Nations such as the Netherlands and Bangladesh would be mostly under water. Refugees would number in the hundreds of millions. How could adults knowingly leave such prospects for young people?

[JH] If major ice sheet collapse begins there will be growing disruptions in the second half of this century. When today’s young people are adults with irreparable harm to today’s young people. But we don’t need to wait until the second half of this century to see climate change impacts. Climate extremes are already increasing.  Weather includes chaotic variations so seasonal average temperature fluctuates from year to year.  Fifty years ago anomalies from  the long term average formed the isometric bell curve, some seasons warmer than average, some cooler. Global warming is shifting the bell curve. The shift is much larger in summer than winter as shown here for the United States. The effect is larger in China and India than in the US and Europe. Even larger in the Mediterranean and the Middle East which already had hot Summers.  Not every Summer is warmer than fifty years ago. And Summer weather lasts longer. The tropics, including central Africa and Southeast Asia, are hotter than normal all year round.

[SK] Impacts of warming include greater climate extremes. Wet regions have more extreme rain and floods as recently occurred in Louisiana. One hundred year floods now occur more than once per century but strong droughts occur especially in sub-tropical regions such as the US Southwest and the Middle East. The greatest impacts are in low latitude regions that were already hot. Added heat makes life more difficult and reduces work productivity which has economic effects. There is substantial empirical data that violence and conflicts among people, groups and nations increase as it becomes still hotter. Nature borne diseases involving infections from blood sucking mosquitoes or ticks can spread to higher latitudes and greater altitudes as warming increases.

[JH] National responsibility for global warming follow from the fact that fossil fuel  CO2 emissions are the primary cause. China’s emissions are now the largest. The US is second and India is third. However, we showed in a 2007 paper that climate change is caused by cumulative emissions.  The US and Europe are each responsible for more than a quarter of total emissions. China for 12%,  India 3%.  On a per capita basis the UK, USA, and Germany are most responsible. An order of magnitude greater than China or India.

[SK] So what situation will today’s young people face in the future if we allow large climate change to occur? People in the future will understand which nations were most responsible.

[JH] That’s an important topic, let’s come back to it later. Let me summarize some of the science in our paper, Young People’s Burden so that we have time to discuss the relevance of the science to the legal case that is being brought against the government. First, we show that the growth rates of the three most important green house gases in the air, CO2, Methane, Nitros Oxide, are not slowing down.  They are accelerating. We show what is required to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees which the Paris Agreement specified as the target. One and a half degrees put the global temperature at the Eemian level so the target actually needs to be even lower. Temperatures should be kept within or close to the prior Holocene level. However, the important point is that for either target the scenarios the that the United Nations use now admit that they must assume massive negative CO2 emissions. That means sucking CO2 from the air. Even with the most optimist technology assumptions if  fossil fuels emissions continues as at present the cost will be in hundreds of trillions of dollars.

[SK] And it is assumed that today’s young people will somehow be able to pay for this in the future. So not only are we being handed a climate system with growing climate disaster and rising seas but we will be expected to pay  the bill to clean up the mess the older generations have left.

[JH] It is feasible to reduce emissions several percent per year as has been shown in several countries over extended periods.  Just now it seems that the Dutch government is considering a plan to reduce the emissions by 50% by 2030 because of a successful lawsuit against the government.

[SK] So let’s assume that the courts require that the government start working for the public instead of the fossil fuel industry. It will be possible to reduce emissions several percent per year. However, we also need to extract CO2 from the air via improved agricultural and forestry practices which requires getting most nations of the world involved, many of them developing nations that have little or no responsibility for the excess CO2 in the air.

[JH] Yes, that is an important point.  There are benefits to the local countries but resources will be required to implement the agricultural and forestry changes and also to reduce emissions of non-CO2 green house gases. There is an idea to obtain the resources from the fossil fuel industry similar to the way resources were obtained from the tobacco industry.  Make them pay their cost to society.  Once resources are available their distribution can be in proportion to the success of the countries in taking needed actions. But that is a story for another day. Let’s talk about the relevance of the science in our paper to the case brought by Our Childrens Trust against the US Government in the district count of Oregon. Sophie is one of the twenty one youth plaintiffs and I am the twenty second  plaintiff as a guardian of Sophie and future generations. At a hearing on Sept 13, 2016, before the Honorable Judge Ann Aiken lawyers for the defense argued that the case should be dismissed. One issue is whether the federal government has a responsibility to hold anything in trust for young people and future generations. We say that it has a responsibility but let’s focus on two fundamental Constitutional issues that they raised. The first is whether youth even have a standing to bring a case, whether youth constitute a class that can be discriminated against. The fifth and fourteenth amendments together provide equal protections of the laws and guarantee that people cannot be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of the law. The lawyers for the defense assert that the government has done nothing to intentionally classify youth so youth have no standing, no basis to bring an equal protection claim against the government.

[SK]  We do not claim the government had classified us but because of our youth we will be alive in the second half of this century and our children and grandchildren will be alive in the twenty second century. We cannot allow the government to steal away our lives, liberty, property and pursuit of happiness nor that of our children and grandchildren because that too wounds us too deeply to think that the declining prospects for our children and deterioration of live on the planet that we and our children inherit. The government says that it has taken no affirmative action that causes our problem but that is false.  As Julia Olsen, our brilliant and caring lawyer points out the government controls the make up of our energy system and it issues permits for extraction, drilling, exports, imports and pipelines for developing unconventional fossil fuels and deep drilling even when the science shows crystal clear that we cannot develop those resources without irreparable harm to young people. We should be moving off to clean energy leaving dirty energy in the ground.

[JH] The second fundamental issue concerns all deliberate speed and whether the court has authority under Article 3 of the Constitution to intervene when the legislative and executive branches  empowered by Articles 1 and 2 of the Constitution have failed to protect the constitutional rights of citizens.

[SK] Yes, it is similar to civil rights. The SCOTUS found in the case of Brown vs Board of Education in 1954 that the rights of black people were violated by school segregation. The court did not specify how to de-segregate but it said that it must proceed with all deliberate speed a phrase that was associated with the much respected Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes. However, after ten years, Justice Hugo Black declared that the time for mere deliberate speed has run out because the phrase we being used to delay compliance with the court order.

[JH]  All deliberate speed will be a dominate issue for climate. Actions of our government are grossly inadequate. They have not accepted the reality dictated by the laws of physics and science. We must phase out fossil fuel emissions rapidly. The tragic fact is that it has been shown in economic studies and in examples in specific countries that it is possible to phase down emissions at a sustained rate of several percent per year while strengthening the economy and creating jobs. It requires having a rising across the board carbon fee and strong support for research development and demonstration of advanced carbon free technologies.

[SK] If the court orders that the executive and the legislative branches must come up with a plan that takes effective action with all deliberate speed that would force congress to sit down with the POTUS and converge on a plan that is acceptable to conservatives and liberals alike. We know it is possible but it won’t happen without pressure from the court.  Our future depends on it.

[JH] That’s enough for today.  Good job.






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