Many of Donald Trump’s cabinet picks equivocated in senate hearings this week about the risks posed by greenhouse gas emissions.
But his lawyers will have to argue from the established science when defending a climate lawsuit brought by 21 children and young people against the federal government.
Trump’s administration inherits the case, which demands a radical overhaul of climate policy to protect future generations, from Barack Obama. It is expected to go to trial in Eugene, Oregon mid to late 2017.
In a written answer to the complaint, the justice department under Obama has endorsed many of the youth plaintiffs’ scientific claims.
Fossil fuel use is making the environment more dangerous, it agrees – but the feds do not accept liability or the proposed remedy.
Excerpts from the defence
“Federal Defendants admit that for over fifty 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.”
“Federal Defendants admit that they permit, authorize, and subsidize fossil fuel extraction, development, consumption, and exportation. Federal Defendants admit that fossil fuel extraction, development, and consumption produce CO2 emissions and that past emissions of CO2 from such activities have increased the atmospheric concentration of CO2.”
“Federal Defendants aver that current and projected concentrations of six well-mixed greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, including CO2, threaten the public health and welfare of current and future generations.”
Backed by the charity Our Children’s Trust, the kids are calling for a plan to restore levels of carbon dioxide in the air to below 350 parts per million.
Human activities have already pushed concentrations over 400ppm. Getting back to 350 entails not only eliminating emissions, but sucking CO2 out of the air – relying on technology not yet proven at scale.
“There is no scientific consensus that 350 ppm is the maximum safe level of atmospheric CO2 concentration that is necessary to restore a stable climate system,” the defence stated.
Julia Olson, legal counsel for the plaintiffs, welcomed the outlining of common ground.
“One important and lasting legacy of the Obama Administration is its commitment to scientific research and disclosing the full dangers of climate change to the American people and the world,” she said in a statement.
“This answer, made in his final days in office, reflects the stark contrast between the truth of the climate dangers we face and the destructive lies being perpetuated by the incoming Trump Administration.”
Trump’s team has a window to change the defence, according to Michael Burger, climate law expert at Columbia University – but then it would have to air a debate on the facts in court.
“The last thing a Trump administration department of justice actually wants is to have the science of climate change go on trial,” he said.
At senate hearings, Trump’s picks for the top foreign affairs, interior and environment roles did not dispute the climate was changing. They cast doubt, though, on the severity of those changes and extent of human influence.
State department nominee Rex Tillerson, fresh from leading Exxon Mobil, dodged questions on allegations his oil company lied about its understanding of climate science.
As a board member of the American Petroleum Institute (API), one of three lobby groups to side with the government, Tillerson is also linked to the youth case. But API’s counsel pushed back on an attempt to get Tillerson in court, saying he was no longer involved. That will be for the judge to decide at the next procedural meeting, scheduled for 7 February.