Friday, May 6, 2016

To Sue or Not To Sue. That is the Question.

**This blog is part of a sustainability series written by student members of the BSOS Sustainability Task Force. To find out more about the task force, click here.**

Written by: Ryan Block

Recently, students from Oregon have filed a lawsuit because they think that climate change unfairly violates the rights of the millennials to an equal opportunity to have economic prosperity.  As the government has the responsibility to protect the environment, do we, as UMD students, also have a claim and a stake in climate change related litigation? If we have a stake and a claim, what type of remedies might be available to us?

    For any case to move forward in the court system, the plaintiff or petitioner must have standing. Standing is the legal term for “the right to file a lawsuit or file a petition under the circumstances.” For a claim to have standing in federal court  it must meet every element of a three-pronged test. There must be a legitimate controversy or harm, there must be a causal  connection between the injury and the conduct complained of, and the court must have a method of redressing the remedy.

More than half of the Maryland State has medium to high socioeconomic vulnerability of sea level rising and coastal flooding impacts.According to Maryland’s State government, sea level rise will have enormous environmental and economic aspects. Sea level rise would accelerate and take up hundreds of square of miles of land. Urban flooding will likely become worse because precipitation would increase. Our Chesapeake Bay and coastal restoration goals will become more difficult achieve.  More importantly, a lot of coastal infrastructures are going to be ruined by future sea level rise including transportation facilities and many energy and water supply systems. The economic costs of damaged coastal facilities were around 4 trillion USD in 2004.

According to a study at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, sea levels will rise 2.1 feet per year by 2050 in the Eastern Shore. This is magnified along the Chesapeake bay, interfering with low lying towns. This area has less infrastructure and is dominated by agricultural fields, so it has less resources available to mitigate. For farmers specifically, Climate change impacts on agriculture can have costly effects on the crops, ruining the income for farmers. A combination of warm winters, precipitation variability and rising salinity can create a breeding ground for weeds that will “outcrop” the main crop. According to the Climate Change Impact Area Mapper, the upper section of the eastern shore is especially high risk to rising tides, flooding and complete loss of farm land. When 350,000 people, on almost 13,000 farms in MD suffer from financial losses to Climate Change, who is to blame?

    According to journalist Bill Moyers, the concept of suing for climate change is not radical, but based on a legal concept called the public trust doctrine. This doctrine basically states that the government has the duty to protect the environment for future generations; it is not necessarily written in the Constitution or in any law, but is potent enough to serve as the basis for a case in Oregon that pitted a group called Our Children’s Trust against a government accused of not being aggressive enough in reducing the effects of climate change. This is an ongoing effort by the group called Atmospheric Trust Legal Actions to force governments both in the U.S. and abroad to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to preserve healthy air for posterity.

There are many possibilities for remedies to climate change related injuries. These include injunctions for increased use of renewable energy technology, payment for damages caused by the fossil fuel industry, promotion of Sustainable development initiatives, and maybe even an order requiring less fossil fuel production and consumption. There are benefits and costs to every remedy, but it is important to note that without a remedy, the harm from climate change is only accelerating. The remedies require investments in the infrastructure of the future generations. As current stakeholders may be harmed, they could attempt to appeal the lawsuit to get any injunctions removed.

    Because we are members of a flagship, land-grant institution it is our mission to protect and advocate for Maryland using the resources in our possession. Every day we learn about our place in the biosphere. Maryland has many species and process that are endemic to the Chesapeake Bay and the forests that make up our natural landscape for students to study and protect. Our natural resources are vital to our way of life and we each have a responsibility to each other and the government has a duty to protect us economically, socially, and politically. Litigation has proven itself to be a legitimate way to force the hand of those reluctant to acknowledge or mitigate the changes happening before out very eyes. As students we are the navigators as to where the next step will be for the State. Our new brand of thinking combined with recent discoveries would make transformative and powerful common law that would push the government and private sector forward to systems that are innovative, restorative, and equitable.