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Forsaken children sue Trump to save their planet from the ravages of climate
Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney  by Joseph Stiglitz
15 Nov 2018
General News - Page 18 - 1002 words - ID 1036769769 - Photo: Yes - Type: News Item - Size: 487.00cm2

A remarkable trial is set to begin in Eugene, Oregon, on November 19. The Trump administration is being sued by 21 children on behalf of themselves and future generations. They claim the administration, through its climate-change policies, is violating their basic rights.

It should be obvious that the threat of climate change is putting at risk their future - it has been obvious for a long time. It's not just the increase in temperature and the rising sea level, it's the accompanying increase in extreme weather events, such as floods, hurricanes and droughts that can also devastate harvests and cause forest fires. The acidification of the ocean will destroy coral reefs, including Australia's Great Barrier Reef. As habitats get destroyed, so will species. Those in more temperate zones are already facing new diseases.

The judge in the case has already ruled that the "right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society". As The New York Times put it: "The young plaintiffs have demanded, among other things, that the courts force the government to implement an enforceable national remedial plan to phase out fossil fuel emissions" in an effort to "stabilise the climate system". The courts could then supervise the government's efforts.

Each of these 21 children will be affected not just by the economic burdens their generation will have to bear as cities relocate. One, Levi, lives on an island off the coast of Florida and it will be submerged.

He will join millions of others around the world who will lose their homes - South Pacific islanders whose countries will disappear and Bangladeshis whose only asset, the land and house they own, will disappear. Levi will be relatively lucky: he will be able to move elsewhere in the US. But where will the millions of Bangladeshis go? Or the millions in sub-Saharan Africa who face the opposite threat, desertification of their lands?

These are not just ordinary "economic migrants". Their right to a livelihood has been taken away by those elsewhere - in the US, Europe and China - whose greenhouse gas emissions, the result of unbridled consumption, is the prime cause of this climate change. Their "right to consume" is depriving others of the right to live.

Another plaintiff in the case, Alex, is a student at my university, Columbia. He lives on a farm in southern Oregon whose viability is undermined by climate change and is now threatened by forest fires.

So often when we see injustices like this, we say: "There ought to be a law." The US Declaration of Independence spoke of the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These children's rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are being taken away because of greenhouse gas emissions. Their future is in jeopardy so Americans today can drive gas-guzzling cars. It seems unfair and it is. It is a matter of social justice - this time between different generations.

In this case, there is a law and a longstanding legal doctrine. The law is America's Constitution, which promises fair treatment and due process for all individuals. In the case of these children, this is especially important because they

don't even have the right to vote.

They can't express their concerns through the electoral process. And that is why the doctrine of public interest declares that the state (the sovereign) holds natural resources in trust for future generations. (It's a doctrine that, not surprisingly, goes back centuries, included in the Justinian law and formally incorporated into American civil law in the 19th century.) I'm an expert witness in this case. I chaired an international commission that concluded that limiting temperature increases to 1.5C to 2C, which the international community agreed to in Paris and Copenhagen, is achievable at a low cost, with a carbon price eventually rising to perhaps $US100 ($138) a ton of carbon, which translates into about 88 cents a gallon (3.78 litres) of gasoline, accompanied by some other regulatory measures.

Others have estimated that the increased energy costs would likely be no higher than 2 to 3 per cent of GDP, and eliminating the hundreds of billions of dollars in fossil fuel subsidies would actually save money. These costs pale in comparison to the multiple episodes when energy costs have increased far more and in each of these instances our economy managed these increases. These numbers also pale in comparison to the likely costs of not taking action.

Government procedures for discounting future events mean that the wellbeing of future generations is systematically being downplayed.

The Trump administration has been using a 7 per cent discount rate.

That means that a dollar today is viewed as 32 times as valuable as a dollar spent 50 years from now. In essence, the Trump administration is saying, as are governments in some other countries: "Our children count for very little, and our children's children count for essentially nothing." Climate change's effects are long-lasting. Today's pollution will affect our children's children. No just society can simply ignore this.

Conservative governments often make a big fuss over an increase in the fiscal deficit, saying it would impose a burden on our children.

They're wrong, at least if the money is well spent on investments in infrastructure, technology or education. But they're hypocrites if they make such claims and do nothing about climate change.

It would be one thing if there were some other planet we could migrate to if, as the scientific evidence shows overwhelmingly, we ruin this planet with our continuing carbon emissions. But Earth is our only home. We need to cherish it, not destroy it.

Professor Joseph Stiglitz is a Nobel Prize winner in Economics and the winner of the 2018 Sydney Peace Prize. He delivered the Sydney Peace Prize address at Sydney Town Hall last night.

Caption Text:
A polar bear on the Arctic ice off Alaska: The western Arctic is one of the fastest warming regions in the world. Photo: AP

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