The kids who sat in Judge Hollis Hill's courtroom today know that the problem of climate change asks politicians to do something difficult.
Climate change asks that politicians make decisions now to prevent terrible outcomes later. There's no "Mission Accomplished" banner to be waved when they do, and no local decision can halt a global crisis in an election cycle. But there may be one way to hold politicians accountable for an unknown future, and that's to have the next generation of leaders sue current decision-makers in court.
And that's exactly why, at King County Superior Court this morning, eight kids, the eldest 15 years-old, faced off against the Washington Department of Ecology over its greenhouse gas emission reduction goals.
"We're using the most recent science we can get our hands on," Aji Piper, 15, said after the hearing. "This has to happen now, because what we're seeing if it doesn't happen now, if we do something else, it's not going to meet up to what needs to happen. And we're still going to get a bad outcome."
Piper and seven other kids aided by climate nonprofit Our Children's Trust want the Washington Department of Ecology to promulgate a rule capping greenhouse gas emissions using the "best available science." To them, that means creating stricter standards than what the state legislature agreed to in 2008—50 percent under 1990 levels by the year 2050—and last year, they petitioned Ecology to do so. After Ecology ignored the petition, Judge Hill ordered Ecology to reconsider it. It was the first time a court had ordered a state agency to review its greenhouse gas targets in that way.
Not long after that decision, Governor Jay Inslee directed Ecology to promulgate a rule capping emissions. But the kids suing Ecology say that proposed rule isn't good enough. Their case rests on climate scientists advocating for emissions targets in line with a 1 degree Celsius increase in global surface temperatures by the end of the century, which is lower than the 1.5 or 2 degree Celsius increase used as a target by diplomats at the United Nations.
Ecology, for its part, says that Inslee's executive order should give the youths sufficient opportunity to voice their opinion with other stakeholders, and that the agency will wait to see what happens at the UN's climate conference in Paris this winter to help inform targets for the carbon cap rule. The state has also argued that testimony from the kids' assembled experts—including famed and sometimes controversial climate scientist Dr. James Hansen—should be thrown out because they weren't part of the record when Ecology made its initial decision about the youths' petition.
The kids' lawsuit also cites support from Richard Gammon, professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Washington. Gammon's written brief argued that whatever happens in Paris will have little impact on Washington, because individual nations will still be able to "voluntarily pledge emissions reductions" without penalty. Plus, the UN's 2 degree target has always been a political one, not scientific, Gammon wrote, and aiming for a 2 degree increase in global temperatures doesn't ensure the safety of future generations.
"The State of Washington therefore has nothing to gain, except for further delay, from waiting for the outcome of the Paris Conference with respect to its statutory and constitutional obligations to protect the climate for future generations," he added.
Valery Mandell, the mother of plaintiff Gabe Mandell, 13, said she was "at a loss" as to why Ecology wouldn't consider Gammon's argument, along with the other climate scientists' briefs. "I think Ecology, you know, they have a lot of pressures on them from a lot of different sectors," she said. "When they talk about stakeholders [in the rule-making process], they talk about folks who don't want to see things change because it's going to affect their profit margin."
Now Judge Hill has to decide who's right.