Pope Francis vs. the United States: Global Warming as an Intergenerational Crime

April 19, 2017

In 2015, twenty-one young people [1], many of them acting through guardians, a non-profit organization called Earth Guardians, and climate scientist Dr. James E. Hansen, serving as guardian for future generations as well as his granddaughter, filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court, District of Oregon, against the federal government (Kelsey Cascadia Rose Juliana, et al., vs. United States of America, et al., Case No. 6:15-cv-01517-TC), alleging “that, through the governments affirmative actions in causing climate change, it has violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources.” [2] The National Association of Manufacturers, the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, and the American Petroleum Institute were later granted permission to intervene in the action. [3] The plaintiffs’ first amended complaint requests the court to “order Defendants to cease their permitting, authorizing, and subsidizing of fossil fuels and, instead, move to swiftly phase out CO2 emissions, as well as take such other action as necessary to ensure that atmospheric CO2 is no more concentrated than 350 ppm by 2100, including to develop a national plan to restore Earth’s energy balance, and implement that national plan so as to stabilize the climate system.” [4]

“For over fifty years,” the complaint says, “the United States of America has known that carbon dioxide (‘CO2’) pollution from burning fossil fuels was causing global warming and dangerous climate change, and that continuing to burn fossil fuels would destabilize the climate system on which present and future generations of our nation depend for their wellbeing and survival.” The federal government “also knew the harmful impacts of their actions would significantly endanger” the young people, “with the damage persisting for millennia. Despite this knowledge,” federal government authorities “continued their policies and practices of allowing the exploitation of fossil fuels.”

The federal government and the intervenors asked the court to dismiss the action, and on November 10, 2016 that motion was denied. [5] Among the grounds stated for dismissing the case were the claims that the plaintiffs had “failed to identify infringement of a fundamental right or discrimination against a suspect class of persons,” and that the federal government has “no affirmative duty to protect plaintiffs from climate change.” But the court disagreed.

As to whether the young people had properly alleged an infringement of a fundamental right, the court said that it had “no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society. Just as marriage is the ‘foundation of the family,’ a stable climate system is quite literally the foundation ‘of society, without which there would be neither civilization nor progress.’”

With respect to the assertion that the federal government has no affirmative duty to protect anyone from climate change, the court acknowledged that, ordinarily, “the Due Process Clause does not impose on the government an affirmative obligation to act, even when ‘such aid may be necessary to secure life, liberty, or property interests of which the government itself may not deprive the individual.’” But, the court pointed out, there is a “danger creation” exception to that general rule. This exception “permits a substantive due process claim when government conduct ‘places a person in peril in deliberate indifference to their safety[.]’” The court reasoned that since the young people were alleging that the government “played a unique and central role in the creation of our current climate crisis,” and “that they contributed to the crisis with full knowledge of the significant and unreasonable risks posed by climate change,” the “danger creation” exception applied.

The district court’s order does not mean that the young people have prevailed in their case. It only denied the motion on the part of the federal government and the intervenors for a summary dismissal. The matter must still proceed to trial. But the lawsuit highlights the true nature of climate change denial and indifference. It is not merely one side in a political dispute. It is not a participation in a philosophical debate. It is an intergenerational crime, and it is past time that all clear thinking people see it as such. The climate is not the property of the federal government and fossil fuel producers to do with as they wish, but, as Pope Francis says in Laudato si, it “is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all.” (Sec. 23) [6]   

Author: Casa Rosada
The American culture has been overrun by a kind of Gnosticism on more than one front, essentially denying the reality of the physical world. The apparent belief that carbon dioxide isn’t really a greenhouse gas [7], or that burning fossil fuels doesn’t add to the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere [8], is a symptom of this tendency. But, as Pope Francis tells us,

“A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon. Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it. It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanic activity, variations in the earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle), yet a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity. As these gases build up in the atmosphere, they hamper the escape of heat produced by sunlight at the earth’s surface. The problem is aggravated by a model of development based on the intensive use of fossil fuels, which is at the heart of the worldwide energy system. Another determining factor has been an increase in changed uses of the soil, principally deforestation for agricultural purposes.” (Sec. 23)

Continuing to neglect the problem will have adverse consequences in the not-to-distant future.

“Warming has effects on the carbon cycle. It creates a vicious circle which aggravates the situation even more, affecting the availability of essential resources like drinking water, energy and agricultural production in warmer regions, and leading to the extinction of part of the planet’s biodiversity. The melting in the polar ice caps and in high altitude plains can lead to the dangerous release of methane gas, while the decomposition of frozen organic material can further increase the emission of carbon dioxide. Things are made worse by the loss of tropical forests which would otherwise help to mitigate climate change. Carbon dioxide pollution increases the acidification of the oceans and compromises the marine food chain. If present trends continue, this century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us. A rise in the sea level, for example, can create extremely serious situations, if we consider that a quarter of the world’s population lives on the coast or nearby, and that the majority of our megacities are situated in coastal areas.” (Sec. 24)

But it is not only the future that is of concern. We are already seeing the impact of global warming.

“Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day. Its worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades. Many of the poor live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to warming, and their means of subsistence are largely dependent on natural reserves and ecosystemic services such as agriculture, fishing and forestry. They have no other financial activities or resources which can enable them to adapt to climate change or to face natural disasters, and their access to social services and protection is very limited. For example, changes in climate, to which animals and plants cannot adapt, lead them to migrate; this in turn affects the livelihood of the poor, who are then forced to leave their homes, with great uncertainty for their future and that of their children. There has been a tragic rise in the number of migrants seeking to flee from the growing poverty caused by environmental degradation. They are not recognized by international conventions as refugees; they bear the loss of the lives they have left behind, without enjoying any legal protection whatsoever. Sadly, there is widespread indifference to such suffering, which is even now taking place throughout our world. Our lack of response to these tragedies involving our brothers and sisters points to the loss of that sense of responsibility for our fellow men and women upon which all civil society is founded.” (Sec. 25)

Meanwhile, as the young people also point out in their lawsuit, efforts to deal with the problem have so far been wholly inadequate.

“Many of those who possess more resources and economic or political power seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms, simply making efforts to reduce some of the negative impacts of climate change. However, many of these symptoms indicate that such effects will continue to worsen if we continue with current models of production and consumption. There is an urgent need to develop policies so that, in the next few years, the emission of carbon dioxide and other highly polluting gases can be drastically reduced, for example, substituting for fossil fuels and developing sources of renewable energy. Worldwide there is minimal access to clean and renewable energy. There is still a need to develop adequate storage technologies. Some countries have made considerable progress, although it is far from constituting a significant proportion. Investments have also been made in means of production and transportation which consume less energy and require fewer raw materials, as well as in methods of construction and renovating buildings which improve their energy efficiency. But these good practices are still far from widespread.” (Sec. 26)

There is no sufficient apology for leaving the world less inhabitable for our children and grandchildren. Opposition to taking sufficient measures to arrest global warming is to wage war on the young, and it is hard to imagine an action that is more morally deficient. It is past time to give full recognition to the ethical gravity of continuing to endanger future generations in this manner. And let us offer up prayers on behalf of the young people and others who have brought their lawsuit against the federal government in order to compel it to act in a responsible manner. They are acting on behalf of all of us, and our children and grandchildren.

Jack Quirk