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The Trial of the Century

Will 21 young plaintiffs ultimately be able to persuade a conservative-dominated US Supreme Court that the federal government is violating their constitutional right to a livable planet? It depends on whether the Court is willing to heed the scientific evidence.

PRINCETON – Next month, a judge in Oregon will begin hearing a case brought against the United States government on behalf of 21 young people, supported by the non-profit organization Our Children’s Trust, who allege that the authorities’ active contributions to the climate crisis violate their constitutional rights. The government defendants have repeatedly tried – so far without success – to have the case thrown out or delayed, and the trial is currently scheduled to start on October 29.

In principle, governments, not courts, are best placed to decide which policies will best solve environmental and social problems. In 1992, countries, including the US, China, India, and all European states (and a total of 189 by 2006) accepted responsibility for addressing climate change. Meeting at the “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro, they agreed to stabilize greenhouse gases “at a low enough level to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”

The agreement did not specify what level is low enough to prevent such dangerous interference with our climate, but the scientific consensus is that to allow the global temperature to rise to an average of more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels is to risk catastrophe. The basis of this conclusion is that warming of this magnitude may make much more warming inevitable.

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