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Climate Change (and We) on Trial

By Tom Osborne

On Earth Day, my Laguna Beach friend Joe Praske and I went out to UCLA Law School to attend an event on the pending case of Juliana v. the UnitedStates. The plaintiffs are 21 young people, some of whom are children, who are suing the federal government for failing to provide a sustainable climate. This promises to be a landmark case that could force the current administration to take effective action to address what many leading scientists view as the existential issue and crisis of our time. Also, governments and electorates at all levels in America are figuratively on trial in this lawsuit for failing to act on a danger whose magnitude was understood by our political leaders at least as far back as the 1960s.

Julia Olson is the youngish-looking lead attorney in this lawsuit. Olson said this effort is nonpartisan, noting that she filed this suit in 2015 against the Obama administration and continues it against Trump’s government, which has tried hard to keep the case from advancing. Significantly, neither the Obama nor the Trump administration has disputed her charge that human-generated climate change is a threat to civilization of biblical proportions and that every administration since Lyndon Johnson’s was well aware of this. Yet while the parts per million of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere has grown from a dangerous 350 ppm to more than 400 ppm today, successive Democratic and Republican administrations have continued their subsidies and giveaways to fossil fuel industries.

Olson and the Juliana plaintiffs have won impressive victories in trial and appellate courts, but their legal ordeal is not over. The Trump administration is fighting hard to stop this case from going any further through the court system. With her team of eight or so highly talented pro bono lawyers and renowned economists, like Nobelist Joseph Stiglitz, and famed scientists, like NASA climate expert James Hansen, whose granddaughter Sophie Kivlehan is one of the student plaintiffs, the Olson team forges ahead. While science and public opinion are clearly on the side of the plaintiffs’ case, nothing so far has been able to break the hammerlock that the fossil fuel industry lobbyists have on Congress. The judicial remedy may be all that is left, says Olson, if civilization as we know it is to avoid the worst consequences of global warming. Her team is readying itself for a possible battle in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, in our city, Joe and I and others are urging our Council members and staff to take some next steps in addressing climate change. Such steps include entering a Community Choice Aggregation agreement to move toward using non-carbon-generated electricity, endorsing carbon pricing as embedded in the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Bill (HR 763) before Congress, encouraging solar panel/tile installation, buying electric fleet vehicles when possible, and planting trees. Until a sea change occurs in Washington, D.C., cities and state governments must continue to carry the responsibility of combatting climate change. Among California cities, Berkeley, Palo Alto, San Francisco, San Diego, and Solana Beach are leading the way. Our city has taken steps but can do more. The ultimate verdict will not be handed down by any court in our land but by the Juliana generation and our children and grandchildren who one day soon will judge us all by what we did and did not do to safeguard their future.


Tom Osborne is an environmental historian whose latest book is “Coastal Sage: Peter Douglas and the Fight to Save California’s Shore”(University of California Press, 2018). Osborne chaired the work group that wrote Laguna Beach’s Climate Protection Plan.

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  1. It’s so simple really. If it threatens our life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, then we as Americans need to take action. I’m excited to see what comes of Olson and her efforts.


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