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A question of values

April 13, 2016

Climate scientists and economists have developed some pretty good models for calculating the economic impact of climate change and the cost of delayed action. A 2014 meta-analysis of 16 peer-reviewed studies by the White House Council of Economic Advisors projected that the cost of mitigating climate change increases by 40% for each decade of delay in meeting greenhouse gas reduction targets. If delayed action results in a global temperature increase of three degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, that delay will induce annual additional economic damages of 0.9% of global output—roughly $150 billion a year for the U.S. based upon 2014 GDP. A temperature increase of four degrees would incur added annual costs of 1.2% of global output.

To understand the real-life implications of those impacts, ask the parents of a child with severe asthma what value they would set on each emergency room visit avoided, or each extra day their child was able to attend school without an attack, to play basketball or perform in the school play. Imagine the real life, day-to-day limitations unchecked climate disruptions will impose on future generations—threats to health, safety, financial security, career opportunity, access to food and drinking water—every aspect of what we call quality of life.

Last Friday, a Federal District Court judge in Eugene, OR moved us closer to that more complete understanding. Judge Thomas M. Coffin denied motions by the fossil fuel industry and the U.S. government to dismiss an unprecedented lawsuit brought by a group of 21 young people aged eight to 19, with the help of the non-profit Our Children’s Trust and climate scientist James Hansen. Their legal complaint cuts to the heart of the problem by asserting that the U.S. government and the fossil fuel industry have put present-day profits for a few citizens above the safety and welfare of future generations by delaying meaningful action on climate change, and that this policy violates the public trust, the plaintiff’s civil rights (life, liberty and property) and their right to equal protection under the law. They cite a range of disastrous harms, from rising sea levels and ocean acidification to storms, floods, reduced crop yields and damage to drinking water supplies. In allowing the lawsuit to move forward, Judge Coffin found that “The complaint does raise issues of whether government action/inaction violates the Constitution, and these are issues committed to the courts rather than either of the political branches.”