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Allentown teen sues Trump administration for inaction on climate

Protesters unfurl a cloth sun at the conclusion of the rally on Independence Plaza.

Jonathan Wilson / Newsworks

Protesters unfurl a cloth sun at the conclusion of the rally in Philadelphia during the 2016 Democratic National Convention.

Eighteen-year-old Sophie Kivlehan says she doesn’t remember when she first heard about climate change. It was a normal topic of conversation at the dinner table, one that often included her grandfather, Jim Hansen, an astro-physicist at Columbia University and perhaps one of the worlds’ most well-known climate scientists. Hansen began sounding the alarm about rising temperatures and rising sea levels back in the early 1980′s.

“Because we concluded already that if we burn all the coal, we’ve got a different planet,” Hansen said recently, speaking to StateImpact prior to an appearance at the University of Pennsylvania. “We’ll lose all the coastal cities. It doesn’t make sense burn all the fossil fuels, we need to look at energy policies now.”

But more than 35 years after Hansen published his first paper on how carbon dioxide emissions could change the planets climate, he says the U.S. government has failed to act and it’s time for the courts to force the issue. He and his granddaughter Sophie Kivlehan are suing the federal government, along with 20 other young people from across the country.

The suit, originally filed during the Obama Administration by the organization Our Children’s Trust, now faces a battle with President Trump. The lawsuit claims that the federal government has taken actions to promote the use of fossil fuels.

“When [the] legislative and executive branch, when they don’t do their jobs,” said Kivlehan, “it’s the court’s jobs to act as a check.”

It’s a novel approach, one that has yet to be tried in the federal courts. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently tossed a similar case brought by Pennsylvania resident Ashley Funk. Funk was also represented by the Oregon-based Our Children’s Trust.

But Hansen and Kivlehan are optimistic. Kivlehan says the case could now be more successful with President Trump as an adversary. That’s because Trump has reversed efforts made by the Obama administration to cut carbon emissions.

The Trump administration so outspoken about not addressing climate change issues, there’s an argument to be made that the stakes are now much higher. Trump’s actions to dismantle Obama’s Clean Power Plan, and his proposed defunding of EPA’s climate research, despite agreement among scientists that burning fossil fuels is causing global warming, impacting weather patterns, melting polar ice caps, and driving sea level rise, may actually help the plaintiff’s case.

Hansen points to the success of civil rights lawsuits, like Brown vs. Board of Education, as a model.

Dr. Jim Hansen, when he was director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, testifies before a Senate Transportation subcommittee on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., May 9, 1989.

Dennis Cook / AP Photo

Dr. Jim Hansen, when he was director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, testifies on climate change before a Senate Transportation subcommittee on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., May 9, 1989. Hansen says since Congress has failed to act, it's time the courts take it up.

“It worked very similar,” he said of the civil rights strategy. “There were lawsuits in the 1950′s and 1960′s against governments for violating constitutional rights of equal protection of the laws and due process for minority rights and so this is somewhat analogous.”

The analogy, say the plaintiffs, is young people. Twenty-one kids from across the country are suing the federal government. They argue they’re being denied due process — meaning their future rights to life, liberty and property are threatened because, although the government knows burning fossil fuels causes climate change, it takes actions that promote the use of fossil fuels. The lawsuit demands a plan to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide to safe levels by the year 2100.

When asked what fears she has about her future – Sophie Kivlehan didn’t paint a scary picture about rising seas and severe weather.

“My greatest fear is that this will be my 24/7 job,” she said.

Kivlehan says she’s not directly impacted by climate change right now, unlike others across the globe. But she says her dreams could be overshadowed by trying to solve a problem she didn’t create. What she really wants to do is be an obstetrician.

“I won’t be able to do that, have my own life, have my own family, have my own garden in my backyard and have a dog,” she said. “Like everyone else, I’ll just be spending my time surviving.”

The lawsuit also makes arguments based on a concept not in the constitution, a common law concept known as the public trust doctrine. Kivlehan says the government is responsible for maintaining a healthy atmosphere for future generations.

Legal experts are divided on the likely outcome of the case.

Over the Obama administration’s objections, a federal judge ruled it should go to trial.

Hansen says the trial would start in the fall. But the Trump Administration is fighting hard to prevent that.

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