When Florida’s newly elected Governor Ron DeSantis and Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried take office tomorrow, one group of young Floridians will be keenly interested.
They have a court case against Florida’s governor, the state Department of Environmental Protection, the Florida Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the Public Service Commission (which sets state energy policies and issues permits for power plants), and the Florida Board of the Internal Improvement Trust Fund (which oversees public lands).
The eight young people – ranging in age from 11 to 20 – sued in Leon Circuit Court in Tallahassee last April saying that Florida government’s “deliberate indifference” to preventing the devastating effects of climate change is depriving them of their Constitutional rights to life and liberty. Also, the lawsuit contends that Florida’s “systemic, historic and ongoing” promotion of carbon-spewing fossil fuels is harming our shared public natural resources.
The young people aren’t seeking monetary damages. Instead, they want the court to order the state to create a climate recovery plan – based on the latest science – that deals with the already-happening and future impacts of climate change.
At least nine attorneys are handling the case free of charge.
“Most young people will be dealing with this problem far into the future,” says Susan Glickman, a longtime environmental advocate who is Florida director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “It’s going to dramatically alter so many aspects of our economy and public health.”
One of the plaintiffs, 19-year-old Delaney Reynolds, is from the Florida Keys, where her family’s home is just three feet above sea level, the lawsuit says. When she goes hiking, saltwater now covers trails which used to be dry. On snorkeling trips, she’s confronted with heartbreaking coral bleaching on the once-colorful South Florida reefs.
Another plaintiff, 11-year-old Levi D., lives on a barrier island in Brevard County on the Atlantic coast.
“His island already is facing the impacts from sea level rise and increased inundation during storms,” the lawsuit says. “With just 3 feet of sea level rise, Levi’s home will be in the sea.”
“Long before 3 feet of sea level rise,” the lawsuit continues, “Levi and his family will be forced out of their home because of the increasing frequency and depth of flooding and infrastructure failure in their home and community from sunny day flood events (King Tides and heavy rainfalls) and storm surges from tropical storms and hurricanes.”
Other plaintiffs include two more young people from Miami-Dade and Broward; two from Alachua County, where the flow of the area’s famous freshwater springs is changing; a 15-year-old in Pensacola, where polluted runoff from stronger storms prevents people from swimming anymore in a nearby bayou; and a 16-year-old Seminole girl in South Florida’s Big Cypress Indian Reservation: “Her tribal heritage is closely linked to nature and many in her tribal community believe that if the land dies, so will the tribe,” the suit says.
These are heartbreaking stories, but does the legal action have a chance? Only time will tell. The state responded by filing a motion to dismiss the case last fall. A court hasn’t ruled on that yet.
The Florida case is part of a series of similar legal actions across the U.S. sparked by an Oregon-based nonprofit called “Our Children’s Trust.” A federal lawsuit, representing 21 young plaintiffs, is in an Oregon federal court. All the lawsuits are moving through the courts the way lawsuits do, with both advances and delays. A key argument in the Florida case and in the other lawsuits is based on the public trust doctrine, which provides that public lands, waters and other resources are held in trust by the government for the benefit of its citizens. Since the government has promoted fossil fuels and isn’t adequately dealing with climate change effects, the benefit for citizens is being compromised.
The lawsuit contains a sobering recitation of the effects of climate change. Among them: The amount of harmful carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has gone from the pre-industrial level of 280 parts per million to 403 parts per million, “the highest it has been in the last three million years.”
Like a blanket, high carbon concentrations trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere, causing disastrous global warming effects that the young people will deal with during their lifetimes, including, the lawsuit says, “dangerous increasing temperatures, rising seas and storm-surge flooding, increasing droughts and violent storms, ocean acidification, beach and farmland soil erosion, freshwater degradation, resource and species extinctions, increased pestilence and resultant diseases and other adverse health risks…all of which threaten the habitability of Florida and the safety and well-being of these Plaintiffs, other Floridians and future generations.”
And don’t forget the impacts to human health: increasing asthma, cancer, cardiovascular disease, stroke, food-borne diseases, heat-related deaths, and neurological diseases. Children are especially vulnerable.
Cynics may call the lawsuit a publicity stunt, but realists recognize that the young people who are suing have a very real case that the government is not only failing to protect the public’s resources, but is actively promoting environmental destruction by continuing to promote the fossil fuels which are wrecking the Earth’s atmosphere. These kids have a Constitutional right to a healthy environment. As one U.S. District Judge ruled in the federal case: “ Exercising my ‘reasoned judgment,’ I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society.”
Listen: The Earth’s climate doesn’t care what people believe about it. The hurricanes will get more intense. The temperatures will get hotter. And the seas, which are already swelling from melting global ice, will continue to rise.
No wonder these young people taking their elders to task for practicing hubris, willful ignorance and historic recklessness. And really, Florida, is it too much to ask for our government to put together a climate plan to deal with the current and coming damage in our state? Don’t we owe at least this much to our children, grandchidren, and great grandchildren?