Children Take U.S. Government to Court Over Climate Change

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Public Domain. Wikimedia – US Supreme Court in Washington, DC

The health of young people is disproportionately harmed by climate change, and the government has failed to keep them safe.

Today, on 4 June 2019, a federal court will hear arguments to determine whether or not Juliana vs. United States will proceed to trial. The suit was filed in 2014, when 21 children and young adults from the United States charged that the "government’s inaction on addressing climate change violated their constitutional right to life, liberty, and property."

Since then, the federal government has tried numerous times to have the case dismissed, but it's not so easy. The suit has some heavy-hitting backers, including a group of public health experts who published a letter in the New England Journal of Medicine on May 30, and two former surgeons general, who co-authored a supportive op-ed in the New York Times on June 3.

As the NEJM letter explains, the children's case argues that climate change is "the greatest public health emergency of our time," especially harmful to fetuses, infants, children, and adolescents: "The adverse effects of continued emissions of carbon dioxide and fossil-fuel–related pollutants threaten children’s right to a healthy existence in a safe, stable environment."

Harm takes many shapes and forms. An amicus brief, published by more than 80 physicians and scientists and 15 health organizations, outlines the various ways in which climate change has and will continue to impact children's health.

These include developmental problems triggered by air pollution and exposure to particulate matter released during the burning of fossil fuels; extreme heat linked to birth defects and the spread of disease vectors, such as Zika virus; combustion at coal plants releasing mercury, a neurotoxin that leads to cognitive and motor function impairment.

Air pollution drives absenteeism from school, affecting education. Increased exposure to wildfires is causing smoke damage, leading to more children being hospitalized for asthma exacerbations. Incidents of Lyme disease are on the rise for children between 5 and 9. Extreme heat-related injuries of teenage athletes rose by 134 percent between 1997 and 2006.

The projected harms are just as alarming – reduced nutritional value of foods, compromised infrastructure due to more extreme weather events that could affect hospitals' ability to provide care, and ongoing post-traumatic stress disorder following these events, which "not only impairs children’s healthy development but can alter gene expression and therefore result in changes that are passed on to future generations."

The case is built on the notion of the public trust doctrine, the idea that the government is entrusted with the care of the natural environment on behalf of future generations. As Nina Pullano explained for Inside Climate News,

"Climate litigators contend that the government is a trustee of the atmosphere, too, and the young plaintiffs argue that the government abrogated its duty to limit fossil fuel use and cut greenhouse gases, despite knowledge for decades that combustion of fossil fuels adds carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and changes the climate."

It's a powerful argument backed by growing scientific consensus that climate change is already negatively affecting children's health. The surgeons general, in their op-ed, point out that the U.S. has eliminated polio, reduced cancer rates, and increased life expectancy. But the challenges aren't over:

"Now, as the country faces the potentially catastrophic consequences of climate change, the country needs to understand the public health implications of a warming climate."

They go on to say that perhaps the children's case could be the catalyst for a societal "swerve" required to take rapid, decisive action against climate change.

Even if the case does not proceed, the NEJM letter-writers believe it will spark a much-needed discussion within the medical community about the disproportionate effects of climate change on children's health – something that's long overdue.