A group of boys and girls sued the United States government because the environmental damage that they tolerate today will affect their quality of life in the future, and that of their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. It is a case of equal rights with future generations in the face of climate change.
In a moving initiative that opens up new scenarios in the face of climate change, a group of 21 children took legal action against Washington (1). The reasoning is clear: these children presented themselves as representatives of future generations, arguing that as the government allows the advance of climate change it violated their constitutional rights to a sustainable environment in the future. Those once-adult children, their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, will not have an environment of adequate quality, and even their lives may be compromised.
The lawsuit indicates that the State failed to control greenhouse gas emissions, and these triggered climate change, which will affect its future. The children demand that Washington initiate concrete and effective measures to stop the emission of gases and not continue to damage the future. What is at stake is equity in the rights to a healthy environment between the different generations.
The lawsuit, known as “Juliana vs. USA” (after the name of one of the young women), has been ongoing since 2015, and made substantial progress in 2016 when a judge recognized the validity of the claim (2). This means that now it is the government of Donald Trump that will have to respond, precisely an anti-environment president, known for maintaining that climate change is an invention and that he seeks to reduce environmental regulations in his country.
The principle at stake is the right to intergenerational equity, that is, that our grandchildren and great-grandchildren can also count on a suitable environment for their quality of life. This imposes that the use that is given to natural resources at present does not imply such severe negative effects that it negatively affects our descendants, or that the environmental deterioration that we now cause finally does not explode irreversibly in the future.
Commitments to the future
More than one reader may think that this is another bizarre practice that can occur in an American court, as seen in some television series. Before that I suggest caution. On the one hand, all Latin American countries have adhered to international agreements and treaties that include commitments to future generations. This began with the signing of Agenda 21 and the Declaration of the Eco 1992 of Rio de Janeiro. On the other hand, beyond these international negotiations, both common sense and moral mandates oblige us to ensure an adequate quality of life for our descendants.
However, environmental degradation continues in all countries and globally. Today we have a better scientific basis that confirms climate change, the deniers of those problems are increasingly discredited or are shown to work for corporations. We also know that the loss of natural areas and their biodiversity continues throughout the continent, and that the quality of water and soils is deteriorating due to pollution that does not stop.
We can also say to those of us who are interested in environmental issues but pay attention to pocketbooks, that the future costs of ecological deterioration will be astronomical. For example, the United Nations Environment Program estimates that adaptation to climate change may require $ 300 billion per year in the 2030s and exceed $ 500 billion by 2050 (3).
In the United States, the government argued that the lawsuit was inadmissible, and even the oil companies wanted to join in against the boys and girls. However, successively two judges have rejected that position. One of the judges in the process responded to the Trump administration: "I have no doubts that the right to a climate system that is capable of sustaining human life is fundamental for a free and orderly society." Thus, it was confirmed that the trial will possibly begin in February 2018.
Disputes about the future
One might think that this type of action is typical of the United States judicial system, but it must be recognized that it is a problem that cannot be avoided in Latin America as well. We have responsibilities to future generations, and our present actions or inactions will affect the lives of our descendants.
I wonder if it is not urgent to think about what would be the claims of our children in Latin America, so that they, and their children and grandchildren, can have a good quality of life.
Should we sue our own governments for having allowed and tolerated the loss of huge natural areas with all their biodiversity? In some places, our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will no longer know the Amazon rainforest or the Chaco forests; in others they will no longer have Andean glaciers in sight.
Should they sue the State for its ineffectiveness in curbing the mismanagement of water resources? Everything indicates that in the near future different areas of Brazil, Chile or Bolivia, will be haunted by water shortages. In other regions, the threat is due to pollution, affecting the health of future generations and imposing huge economic costs on them to access potable water.
Should politicians and state officials be sued for their blindness in approving all types of mining or oil exploitation in ecologically fragile sites? What is being approved today in places such as Yasuní in Ecuador, southern Bolivia or the páramos of Colombia, will have negative consequences that will last for decades.
Do those who encourage or protect the use of agrochemicals even in the last corner of the grasslands of Argentina, Uruguay and southern Brazil think about the future? The obsession with monocultures such as soybeans imposes deteriorations on soils and waters that will be difficult to reverse.
In short, there are so many environmental problems currently in the making or maturing in each country that would require immediate energetic measures, but that due to our inability to deal with the future are not adequately attacked. But know that today's inactions will be paid for by our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren in a future that is closer than we assume.
Notes1. The original lawsuit is that of Rose Juliana Kelsey Cascadia, through her guardian, et al., In a constitutional rights case, initially filed in the District of Oregon; the full application in English at:https://static1.squarespace.com/static/571d109b04426270152febe0/t/57a35ac5ebbd1ac03847eece/1470323398409/YouthAmendedComplaintAgainstUS.pdf2. More information on the case in: Juliana vs US climate lawsit, Children’s Trust, https://www.ourchildrenstrust.org/us/federal-lawsuit/3. The adaptation finance gap report, UNEP, 2016; http://www.unep.org/adaptationgapreport/sites/unep.org.adaptationgapreport/files/documents/agr2016.pdf
Eduardo Gudynas is a researcher at the Latin American Center for Social Ecology (CLAES); twitter @EGudynas