Until last November, most of us carried on with our lives, thinking the important, overarching issues affecting us were being taken care of by our elected leaders. Climate disruption is perhaps the most critical and urgent among those issues.
Now that we’ve elected a president who calls climate change a hoax manufactured by the Chinese, however – a president who has placed environmentally unfriendly men in four key positions to influence environmental policy – we can no longer assume a wise captain is steering the ship of state for the benefit of all passengers.
Lately, in fact, the ship has been rocked by some pretty high waves:
- 2016 was the third year in a row deemed the hottest year on record; 16 of the 17 hottest years ever recorded have occurred since 2000.
- Unprecedented rainfall measured in feet instead of inches is causing floods like the recent disasters in Louisiana and North Carolina.
- Scientists say global warming is happening 10 times faster than at any time in Earth’s history; atmospheric levels of methane – a powerful greenhouse gas – are spiking; and the Earth is warming to a climate tipping point.
- Climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events and is already costing American taxpayers tens of billions of dollars.
One would think that, rather than ignoring or countering these facts, the captain would take immediate and decisive action to curb greenhouse gas emissions and address the problem. But instead, his actions are turning the ship back into the storm.
So what is a passenger – that is, a citizen – to do?
In past years, it would have been called mutiny, but today it’s called holding our leaders accountable to the law and their duty to protect our essential natural resources for the survival of present and future generations.
We can put our hands on the helm, too, by invoking our people power and our legal system to force changes for the common good.
And hands on the wheel are coming from some unexpected quarters.
For example, American youth won an important victory for the planet just days after last November’s election. In the case Juliana v. United States, 21 young people ages 9-20 are suing the federal government for violating their rights under the Fifth Amendment, which bars the government from depriving a person of “life, liberty, or property” without “due process of law.”
They charge that the collective actions of the government that have permitted, perpetuated and subsidized this country’s exploitation of fossil fuels do exactly that. Judge Ann Aiken, in a federal district court in Oregon, agreed, describing the fundamental right at issue as “the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life.”
The decision, which establishes that the people have a constitutional right to force the government to protect the climate, will no doubt be fought all the way to the Supreme Court, but the first hurdle has been crossed.
A movement to establish the legal rights of nature is also gaining steam – in the U.S. and elsewhere. New laws recognize that ecosystems and natural communities have the legal right to exist and flourish, and that residents and their government have the authority to enforce and defend those rights.
The movement in the U.S. started in Tamaqua Borough, Pennsylvania, in 2006 and has now spread to other communities in a number of states. Nature’s rights are being challenged by oil and gas companies in several cases; it remains to be seen how effectively they will be defended.
The best way for citizens to influence national, state and local leaders is to become educated on all aspects and impacts of climate change and then join with others advocating for effective solutions.
To begin educating yourself painlessly, consider attending the upcoming film series “Witnessing Climate Change Firsthand,” which will screen three films produced by National Geographic. Co-sponsored by Citizens’ Climate Lobby/Citizens’ Climate Education and the Santa Clarita Public Library, this free series runs on three consecutive Tuesday nights in April – in honor of Earth Month.
Beginning April 4 with Leonardo DiCaprio’s Before the Flood – a documentary showing the many facets and impacts of global warming – the series continues with two episodes of Years of Living Dangerously on April 11 and April 18. All films will screen in the community room at the Valencia Library, 23743 Valencia Boulevard, starting at 7 pm.
Citizens’ Climate Lobby/Citizens’ Climate Education is an international group working to educate the public and advocate for national action on climate change. It has an active Santa Clarita Valley chapter.
Cher Gilmore lives in Newhall and is a member of the Santa Clarita chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby/Citizens’ Climate Education.