Register-Guard readers woke to shocking news on Wednesday, November 9, 2016. Splashed across the “He’s hired” headline was the shocking result of the presidential election. But two days later, the front page featured another underdog prevailing in a different sort of political battle: “Climate suit cleared for trial.”
The latter story, and its accompanying photo of the jubilant plaintiffs, may end up having the larger impact. The Washington Post referred to it as potentially “the biggest trial of the century.” Many believe it holds the best hope of addressing climate change before the planet become inhabitable for humans.
Just hours after Election Day, U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken refused to dismiss the lawsuit being brought against the federal government by 21 youth plaintiffs, all of whom are between the ages of 9 and 20, coordinated by a Eugene non-profit organization, Our Children’s Trust.
This is a good week to reflect on why the federal government is trying to stop this and other similar trials. We’re inaugurating a new president today who believes climate change is a hoax. His nominee to oversee the nation’s energy policy suggested the department he will run should be abolished. Scientists have just confirmed that last year was the warmest on record, for the third year in a row.
But never mind those details. Think instead about the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. Our Children’s Trust draws directly on King’s legacy — learning from both his successes and his failures. (Hint: that front page photo was no less important than the headline.)
Our Children’s Trust’s legal reasoning may be novel, but it draws from ancient Common Law thinking that shaped the western world. For example, if you and I own a cabin together and I trash the cabin during my visit, I’m responsible for all the repairs, even though I own only half the cabin. The legal framework is really that simple.
These young people are claiming that their right to a full life of breathing clean air and drinking clean water is being violated by the current generation and its regulatory practices. Aiken’s ruling couldn’t help but agree: “I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society.”
I’s really so simple that a child could understand it. “Clean air and water belongs to us as much as it belongs to you, but you’re using it up. We shouldn’t have to pay for your negligence.”
The legal case is compelling, but the optics are absolutely devastating. Picture prepubescent children, dressed for a courtroom, listening while a government official claims that, metaphorically speaking, the dog ate his homework. You can see why the defendants desperately want to avoid the spectacle of a trial.
King understood the power of optics. He brought — no pun intended — arresting images into people’s living rooms. First it was dogs and water hoses. Then an elderly woman preferring not to give up her seat. Then boycotts and publicized jailings. When King planned his March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, Walter Cronkite asked CBS to double his nightly news program to 30 minutes, so it could be properly covered.
Less remembered are King’s final years, when his activism attacked income inequality, the neglect of the poor, and our escalating military involvement in Vietnam. These causes were no less noble than the civil rights movement, but King couldn’t coordinate compelling optics.
So it is with climate change. Images of polar bears on ice floes or charts showing temperatures rising may be surprising, even alarming — but not heart-rending. Seeing young girls being spit upon as they enter a newly desegregated school — that can make the blood boil. Those images mobilized Americans and catalyzed real change.
Likewise, Our Children’s Trust invites cameras to survey the faces of young people, asking for nothing more than air they can breathe and water they can drink. When the future speaks for itself, we can’t bear not to listen.
At the end of the day, it may not matter who inhabits the White House.
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.