By William S. Becker
Why, we might ask, have 21 young Americans fought so hard for so long to take the United States government to court for contributing to global climate change? Why are they determined to take their lawsuit, Juliana v United States, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary?
The answer is simple. Although presidents and congresses have known about climate change and its costly impacts for more than 50 years, their response has been woefully and dangerously inadequate. So, the Julianas, as I call them, have turned to the courts.
Although the Julianas could not have anticipated it when they filed their lawsuit in 2015, things have become far worse. Under Donald Trump, the federal government is not only ignoring global warming; it is actively promoting and producing the greenhouse gas pollution that is responsible for global warming. In fact, after some glimmers of hope during the Obama presidency, we have a Congress and president who are again putting the United States on a path that leads to uncontrolled pollution and irreversible disasters.
Trump has scrapped the comprehensive climate action plan that President Obama developed. He plans to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement. He is increasing America’s production of all fossil fuels on public lands, including the dirtiest fuel, coal. He is trying to keep old coal-fired power plants open. He wants the United States to become the world’s dominant producer of fossil fuels. The United States already has surpassed Russia and Saudi Arabia as the world’s biggest oil producer.
Trump mocks and dismisses climate science, claiming that scientists have a “very big political agenda.” In reality, scientists stake their careers on objectivity. They have studied and observed the correlation between carbon pollution and global warming since the 1800s. Since 1988, scientists from 195 nations have gathered and analyzed research from around the world. They are unequivocal in their conclusion that climate change is real, caused by human activity and already underway. Just days ago, they issued a new report warning that without immediate action to make epic reductions in fossil fuel pollution, humanity faces a future of extreme weather disasters far worse than we are seeing today.
Trump is correct when he says a very big political agenda is at work in regard to climate science. But that agenda was created and is still followed by the Republican Party and the fossil energy sector. A little history will explain.
In 1992, as an outgrowth of a major international conference known as the Rio Earth Summit, the United States and other nations signed an agreement called the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It has been the foundation of all international climate agreements since.
One of the agreements is the Kyoto Protocol, a formal treaty that for the first time set binding targets for greenhouse gas reductions by the world’s richest nations. President Bill Clinton signed the treaty in 1997, but the U.S. Senate passed a resolution that said it would not concur in any treaty that did not also require emission reductions by developing countries. America’s participation in the Kyoto Protocol remained in limbo until President George W. Bush withdrew the United States from the treaty in 2001.
Because of this and some other pollution controversies, Republicans began to worry that they were looking bad on the environment. So, they engaged communications whiz Frank Luntz to give them advice. Luntz confirmed that the environment was the single issue on which Republicans in general and President Bush in particular were the most vulnerable. He schooled them on how to turn climate change from a scientific issue into a wedge political issue.
Tellingly, Luntz advised Republicans that “A compelling story, even if factually inaccurate, can be more emotionally compelling than a dry recitation of the truth.” He recommended that Republicans “make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate”. He encouraged them to recruit scientists who dispute the reality or causes of climate change and make them part of the GOP’s message. And he told Republicans to claim that international climate agreements would cost the United States billions of dollars and thousands of jobs.
Climate change denial gradually got major traction in the Republican Party. The GOP platform of 2008 contained the words “climate change” 13 times. It called for cutting the demand for oil to address the climate challenge; using new technologies and market solutions to decrease greenhouse gas emissions; mitigating the impacts of climate change where they occur; and ensuring that America has a robust economy to help “the world’s poorest people who would suffer terribly if climate change is severe”. The platform even proposed a Climate Prize of many millions of dollars for scientists who “solve the challenge” of climate change.
Four years later, the GOP platform mentioned climate change only once, to criticize President Obama for classifying global warming as a national security threat (an assessment with which many of his generals and other world leaders agreed). By 2016. the GOP platform had turned strident. It branded the IPCC as a “political mechanism”, rejected the Paris and Kyoto agreements, and called for an end to U.S. funding for the UNFCCC. Republicans who once publicly acknowledged the need for climate action — John McCain, Newt Gingrich, Tim Palwenty, Marco Rubio, Linsey Graham – fell silent.
Republicans as well as Democrats from fossil-energy-producing states have used Luntz’s advice ever since. There are distinguished Republicans, most of them retired from public office, who advocate that we tackle climate change. Most who are still in office have allied with the fossil fuel sector and its big campaign donors and continue to follow Luntz’s script. It is the script that Trump is reading from now.
Is the script correct or is it, in Luntz’s words “factually inaccurate”? Let’s consider just one of the talking points. Trump has said that staying in the Paris climate accord would cost billions of dollars 2.7 million American jobs. But the economic costs of doing nothing would be much, much higher. The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office estimated last year that climate change already has cost taxpayers more than $350 billion over the last decade. By mid-century, the cost will escalate to $35 billion per year. Also by mid-century, erratic weather and rising temperatures will increase food prices by as much as 84%, according to the Brookings Institution. There will be higher health costs, continuing damage of property on the nation’s coasts, major costs for disaster assistance and recovery, and much more.
As for jobs, the shift to a clean energy economy already is underway in the United States. Some 2.7 million Americans go to work every morning in some part of the clean energy sector. In traditionally Republican rural areas, many communities are surviving because of renewable energy. Wind farms pay $222 million annually to farm families and rural landowners. Nearly half of that money goes to counties with below average incomes. Farm income from renewable energy is projected to grow to more than $900 million annually in the next 12 years.
Again, Trump is correct that a big political agenda is at work in the long-running debate about climate change. But that agenda was developed by Republicans and fossil energy industries. It has stalled action for decades. Worse, Trump’s government is adopting policies and practices that will make climate change more severe while pushing the United States back into the carbon-intensive 20th century. That is what the Julianas are trying to stop. Whether we are Republicans or Democrats, old or young, rural or urban, conservative or liberal, they are doing it for all of us.