By William S. Becker
If you’ve followed climate-change litigation in recent years, you are aware that the case with the most potential consequence involves 21 young Americans who sued the government for promoting and enabling the use of fossil fuels. They’ve been slugging it out with government lawyers in the federal court system ever since.
Since filing their lawsuit in 2015, the young plaintiffs have dodged a barrage of legal maneuvers by the Obama and Trump Justice Departments, which both have wanted the courts to dismiss the lawsuit. If the young people are successful, they will force the Trump government to face them in open court, where its representatives would have to testify under threat of perjury.
There is an interesting wrinkle in the case, however – one that may not be known by people who haven’t followed the case closely. The government’s lawyers have already admitted that almost everything the young litigants say about climate change is true.
The Obama Administration’s attorneys filed their response to the lawsuit the day before Trump was inaugurated in January 2017, acknowledging that climate change is real, and its consequences would be severe. Trump’s Justice Department was allowed ample time to change that response, but it didn’t.
Since then, in a document to justify lowering vehicle efficiency standards, the Administration stated that on our current course, global warming will reach 4oC above preindustrial levels, more than two-and-a-half times higher than international scientists say would be catastrophic. “The amazing thing they’re saying is human activities are going to lead to this rise of carbon dioxide that is disastrous for the environment and society. And then they’re saying they’re not going to do anything about it,” climate scientist (and PCAP advisor) Michael MacCracken said.
What’s more, the government’s own scientists warned last fall that climate change is “presenting growing challenges to human health and safety, quality of life and the rate of economic growth…The impacts of climate change are already being felt in communities across the country”.
So, what motivates Trump to remain in stubborn denial that climate change is real? Is he hoping to keep the nation’s conspiracy theorists in his base? A survey by YouGov found last January that 22% of American adults think climate change is a hoax. (In addition, 29% believe there’s a “deep state” working against Trump, 27% think the government is hiding aliens, 19% think the government is using chemicals to control the population and 11% believe the moon landing was faked.) Or does he not want to discourage oil companies, including the world’s richest industries, from forking over lots of campaign cash for him and congressional Republicans?
In the rest of this post, I will list several of the Justice Department’s affirmations about current climate science. Fair warning: It is an astounding list, but perhaps not the most entertaining summer reading if you are not a climate wonk. But it is important reading as we approach next year’s presidential and congressional elections. With small changes for readability, the following statements are quoted directly from the Justice Department’s response to the Juliana lawsuit, as it is called. I have added short comments in italics to update some of the Department’s responses.
Global warming is real
For more than 50 years some officials and persons employed by the federal government have been aware of a growing body of scientific research concerning the effects of fossil fuel emissions on atmospheric concentrations of CO2—including that increased concentrations of atmospheric CO2 could cause measurable long-lasting changes to the global climate, resulting in an array of severe deleterious effects to human beings, which will worsen over time.
From 1850 to 2012, CO2 emissions from the United States (including from land-use) constituted more than one-quarter of cumulative global CO2 emissions.
Overall production and consumption of fossil fuels over the last 50 years has increased… Between 1991 and 2014, at least 127,600 million metric tons of CO2 were emitted from fossil fuel combustion in the United States.
In 2013, daily average atmospheric CO2 concentrations (measured at the Mauna Loa Observatory) exceeded 400 ppm for the first time in millions of years. (The concentrations have now exceeded 415 ppm.) The Earth has warmed about 0.9°C above pre-industrial temperatures.
There is a scientific consensus that the buildup of greenhouse gases due to human activities is changing the global climate at a pace and in a way that threatens human health and the natural environment.
Anthropogenic climate change in the United States has produced warmer summers…Under warming conditions, in Alaska there are spruce beetles that mature in one year rather than two years. Various beetles have killed millions of hectares of trees across the United States.
Consequences will increase
The consequences of climate change are already occurring and, in general, those consequences will become more severe with more fossil fuel emissions. Significant climate impacts have already occurred in the United States. Positive feedbacks and potential tipping points for some biological or physical systems exist, and some changes may be irreversible.
The average rate of warming over the past 30 years has been higher than over the past 100 years. (Subsequent to this report, 2016 was found to be the planet’s hottest year, followed by 2015, 2017 and 2018, in that order, and 2019 is on track to take over first place. The 10 hottest years have occurred since 1998.)
Fossil fuel extraction, development, and consumption produce CO2 emissions. Past emissions of CO2 from such activities have increased the atmospheric concentration of CO2.
CO2 emissions are currently altering the atmosphere’s composition and will continue to alter Earth’s climate for thousands of years.
Climate change is damaging human and natural systems, increasing the risk of loss of life, and requiring adaptation on larger and faster scales than current species have successfully achieved in the past, potentially increasing the risk of extinction or severe disruption for many species.
Climate change will increase the prevalence of parasites and diseases that affect livestock, increase the range and distribution of weeds and pests, cause changes in precipitation patterns and extreme weather events, and reductions in water availability. This may result in reduced agricultural productivity.
Climate change effects on agriculture will have consequences for food scarcity. Climate change is predicted to decrease crop yield, increase crop prices, and decrease the concentrations of protein and essential minerals in crops such as wheat and rice, which lowers these crops’ nutritional value.
The more rapid the rate of climate change, the more challenging it is for humans and natural systems to adapt to it.
It is endangering public health
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has assessed the effects of greenhouse-gas pollution and has concluded that this pollution endangers the public health and welfare of current and future generations and thus requires Clean Air Act regulation.
Climate change is likely to be associated with an increase in allergies, asthma, cancer, cardiovascular disease, stroke, heat-related morbidity and mortality, food-borne diseases, injuries, toxic exposures, mental health and stress disorders, and neurological diseases and disorders.
Climate change increases the prevalence and geographic distribution of occurrences of some infectious diseases. Longer growing seasons resulting from increased temperatures have allowed ragweed to produce pollen for a longer period, exacerbating the effects of ragweed allergies.
Climate change is expected to increase ground-level ozone pollution over broad areas of the country due to surface temperature and other impacts, including large metropolitan population centers. Ground-level ozone can affect the respiratory system, including through irritation of the airways, reductions in lung function, aggravation of asthma, and airway inflammation. Estimates made assuming no change in regulatory controls or population have ranged from 1,000 to 4,300 additional premature deaths nationally per year by 2050 from combined ozone and particle health effects.
At least 9,000 Americans have died from heat-related illnesses since 1979. Global temperatures are projected to increase more than 11° Fahrenheit by 2100, depending on future emissions and the responsiveness of the climate system…Under a higher-emissions scenario, the number of heat-wave days in Los Angeles is projected to double, and the number of heat-wave days in Chicago to quadruple, resulting in more deaths.
Prolonged heat events in recent years have been the most extreme on record and climate change has contributed to these events. An EPA study has projected that without reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the resulting increases in extreme heat would lead to unsuitable working conditions and a large negative impact on United States labor hours—specifically, a decrease of 1.8 billion labor hours, with about $170 billion in lost wages in 2100.
Sea levels have been rising at a rate of about 3.4 millimeters per year since 1993… This rate is faster than the rate over the past century. Rising relative sea levels (which are a function of global sea level and local factors such as land subsidence or uplift) have caused increased flooding in many communities.
Rising sea levels along coastal states lead to the inundation of low-lying lands and beaches, loss of wetlands, and increased salinity of near-coastal estuaries and aquifers…Approximately 20 square miles of land along the Atlantic Coast were converted to open water between 1966 and 2011. Relative sea-level rise may be higher than the global average in areas with land subsidence or changes in ocean currents such as the land around the Gulf of Mexico and the East Coast. Non-linear changes in the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets could contribute to additional sea-level rise.
Scientific assessments of the IPCC and the National Academies have projected sea-level rise by the end of the next century of 0.26 meters to 2 meters (depending on the assessment, the emissions scenario, and the response of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets), and the sea level will continue to rise for several centuries even after atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations are stabilized
Drought and freshwater shortages
There have been and will continue to be changes in the nation’s water cycle as a result of climate change, including more winter and spring precipitation in the northern United States and less precipitation in the Southwest (and more intense droughts projected for the Southwest).
Impacts on water resources vary between regions; there have been and will continue to be changes in the nation’s water cycle as a result of climate change, including more winter and spring precipitation in the northern United States (except for the Northwest in the spring) and less precipitation in the Southwest (particularly in the spring). Because of increasing temperatures and changes in variability in some regions, drought is expected to increase across most of the central and southern United States, even in regions with increasing precipitation.
The average extent of North American snow cover decreased at a rate of about 3,300 square miles per year between 1972 and 2015, with the largest decreases occurring in spring and summer and the United States snow cover season has become shorter by nearly two weeks.
The big thaw
There has been an increase in permafrost thaw in Alaska. As organic matter frozen in the permafrost thaws (including from peat bogs) it will decay, creating emissions of methane and CO2 that can lead to more warming. Methane releases from Arctic permafrost have been observed.
Glaciers have been receding on average within the United States. In 1850 there were an estimated 150 glaciers in Glacier National Park, Montana, and that there are currently only 25 glaciers larger than twenty-five acres in Glacier National Park. Every glacier in the Brooks Range of northern Alaska studied by the United States Geological Survey in a 2010 report was in retreat.
The melting of mountain glaciers due to climate change can impact the timing of water flow downstream, which can have adverse impacts on water systems and flooding, including for areas that rely on snowmelt for irrigation and water supply.
As temperatures warm, areas reliant on snowmelt for irrigation and drinking-water supplies will be impacted, and in the western United States, increasing snowmelt will increase flooding in some mountain watersheds.
The loss of other species
The oceans have absorbed about 28% of CO2 produced by human activities over the past 250 years, leading to an increase in surface ocean acidity of about 30%. Increased acidity makes it more difficult for certain organisms to build and maintain their skeletons and shells (including corals, oysters, clams, scallops, mussels, abalone, crabs, geoducks, barnacles, sea urchins, sand dollars, sea stars, sea cucumbers, some single-celled organisms and protists), putting a number of such organisms and certain forms of seaweed at risk, and thereby impacting larger ecosystems.
Climate change and ocean acidification threaten the survival of plants, fish, and wildlife, and also threatens biodiversity. There is an increase in the risk of species extinctions due to the rate of climate change and ocean acidification; many species will face changes in abundance, distribution, and species interactions, and some of these changes will have adverse impacts on ecosystems and humans.
Surface ocean waters could be nearly 150% more acidic. The oceans have probably not experienced this rate of change in pH for 100 million years…Coral reefs are threatened by increasing acidity. Under a business-as-usual scenario major United States coral reefs will experience extensive bleaching and dramatic loss of shallow coral cover by 2050, and near-complete loss by 2100.
In the Northwest, summer temperature increases (and in certain basins, increased river flooding and winter flows, and decreased summer flows), will threaten many freshwater species, particularly salmon, steelhead, and trout; and further, admit that rising temperatures will increase disease and mortality in several iconic salmon species.
Climate change is expensive
Climate change projections estimate an increase in monetary damages associated with inland flooding across most of the contiguous United States. An EPA study projects that without reductions in GHGs, an estimated 190,000 inland bridges would be structurally vulnerable because of climate change by the end of the century, with an adaptation cost of about $170 billion between 2010 and 2050. The same EPA study projects that in the Northwest, a region including Washington and parts of Oregon and Idaho, 56% of inland bridges are identified as vulnerable in the second half of the 21st Century.
An EPA study projects that without reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, adaptation costs in 2100 associated with updating urban drainage to handle the 50-year 24-hour storm in 50 United States cities are projected to range from $1.1 to $12 billion. Without adaptation, unmitigated climate change is projected to result in $5 trillion in damages for coastal property due to sea-level rise.
We’re not doing nearly enough
Current action by the United States will not achieve global atmospheric CO2 level of 350 ppm by the end of the century. (350 ppm or below is considered the “safe” level of CO2 concentration .)
As I reported in another recent post, climate litigation is increasing world-wide. In the United States, many states and interest groups have turned to the courts because of the stalemate in the other two branches and because of Trump’s active efforts to undermine or reverse federal climate policies. The Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University notes, “The Administration has delayed and initiated the reversal of rules that reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from stationary and mobile sources; sought to expedite fossil fuel development, including in previously protected areas; delayed or reversed energy efficiency standards; undermined consideration of climate change in environmental review and other decision-making; and hindered adaptation to the impacts of climate change.”
The Sabin Center reviewed 159 legal cases involving federal policies related to climate change during Trump’s first two years in office. Not once during 2017 and 2018 have the courts ruled in favor of the Administration.
According to another organization — the Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy in the UK – the number of climate-related lawsuits in the United States is considerably larger than the cases studied by the Sabin Center. The UK Centre identified 1,023 cases just in the United States between May 2018 and May 2019, three-quarters of the lawsuits it found worldwide.
The bottom lines of all this are clear. There is no more room, and no more time, for contrived doubt about climate change. Each year of carbon emissions means the greater erosion of the “American way of life”. Each year of delay further threatens the well-being of the international global community and world peace. Each year further degrades the environment on which we all depend. Simply put, climate change is so dangerous, disruptive, pervasive and costly a threat that no one who stands in the way of action should be allowed to hold public office after 2020.