At the beginning of 2018, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved the minute hand of its infamous Doomsday Clock to two minutes to midnight (midnight being a large scale catastrophe that would partially or fully eliminate the possibility of organized human life on Earth), the closest it has been since 1953 at the height of the Cold War. The recent move comes just one year after the Bulletin changed the minute hand to 2 1/2 minutes to midnight, warning in a 2017 statement: “rising temperatures, resulting from the industrial-scale burning of fossil fuels, will change life on Earth as we know it, potentially destroying or displacing it from significant portions of the world, unless action is taken today, and in the immediate future”. This dire warning rang hollow in the halls of power in Washington. As of the time of writing this article, the Trump administration stands firmly by its decision to leave the Paris climate agreement (making the United States the only country in the world to have done so), and its moves to repeal the Clean Power Plan and cut funding to the Environmental Protection Agency while pushing for more pipelines, more oil, and more coal. For the Trump administration, two minutes to midnight is not close enough.
Luckily for America and for all of us, the youth is fighting back. In 2015, 21 American children and young adults, all 21 years of age or younger, filed a constitutional climate lawsuit against the United States Government in the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon, alleging that, “through the government’s affirmative actions that cause climate change, it has violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property”. In April 2016, U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Coiffin recommended denial of the Justice Department’s motion to dismiss the case, a ruling that was upheld by U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken. In Judge Aiken’s opinion and order denying the motion, she unequivocally stated that the plaintiffs have standing to sue, having alleged “injuries that are concrete, particularized, and actual or imminent […], a causal link between defendants’ conduct and the asserted injuries” and the ability of the court to “at least partially redress their asserted injuries”. Judge Aiken later stated: “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.” The case will move to trial in the coming months.
While this case is unprecedented in the United States (and North America more generally), it is not the first case of its kind. In 2015, a court in the Hague ordered the government of the Netherlands to slash greenhouse gas emissions after Roger Cox, partner at Dutch law firm Paulussen Advocaten in Maastricht, sued the government on behalf of the Urgenda Foundation, an environmental advocacy group, alleging that the Dutch government had “a legal obligation to protect its citizens by doing its part to keep global temperatures from rising more [sic] than two degrees celsius”, a target temperature rise that scientists agree will stopper the most devastating effects of global warming. While a similar lawsuit has also been launched in Belgium, Professor Lorne Sossin, Dean of Osgoode Hall Law School, suggests that there are many legal grounds on which such a lawsuit may be launched in Canada, such as various pieces of legislation, and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
As the words of Judge Aiken and the ruling in the Dutch case suggest, there is good reason to be optimistic that the obvious threat of global climate change to the human rights of millions of people will soon be widely recognized in the legal world, though as Professor Sossin soberly reminds us, it will be “an uphill battle”. This battle is one that is necessary and urgent. As CNN reported in July 2017, “a comprehensive list now names hundreds of U.S. cities, large and small, that may not make it through the next 20, 50 or 80 years due to sea level rise.” The study the news outlet cites was carried out by The Union of Concerned Scientists, which lists cities that will be flooded “at least 26 times per year or the equivalent of a flood every other week”, and includes areas that are currently inhabited by tens of millions of Americans, such as New York, Boston, San Francisco and Miami, among others. As CNN darkly notes, “if you live along the coast, your city could be one of them – meaning that you could be part of the last generation to call it home”.
Similar dangers threaten Canada as well. Lennox Island, “a small 514-hectare Mi’kmaq reserve northwest of P.E.I.” will be half-submerged in 50 years. In the next 30 to 40 years, “the number of rainy days in [Toronto] is expected to double, and the thunderstorms will become more extreme”, which will mean more flooding and property damage. Higher temperatures in the prairies, along with higher levels of drought, will dramatically increase the number of wildfires in provinces like Alberta and Saskatchewan by 2080, while communities on the British Columbian coast will also experience the increased threat of flooding as climate change worsens.
To make matters even more disturbing, the effects of climate change on North American communities pale in comparison to the coming devastation of Asian cities. Osaka, Japan might be completely submerged by 2070, endangering no less than $1 trillion worth of Japanese assets. 17.5 million Chinese are at risk of being displaced from Shanghai by 2100 due to flooding. The situation in other parts of the world is not any rosier. 8 million Egyptians are at risk of being displaced from the coastal city of Alexandria because of sea level rise. Cape Town, South Africa will run out of drinking water by July. Temperature rise in the Middle East and North Africa will make large portions of these regions uninhabitable by century’s end, potentially displacing hundreds of millions of people. The small Pacific island nation of Tuvalu, along with other island nations the world over are expected to entirely disappear by 2100 due to sea level rise. In short, midnight is just over the horizon.
There is no question that climate change threatens the rights to “life, liberty and property” of millions of Americans. In Canada, our rights to “life, liberty, and the security of the person” guaranteed to us by the Charter are unquestionably under threat. As for the human rights of hundreds of millions of Asians and Africans, well… see above. The 21 young plaintiffs suing the U.S. government over its environmental policies are not only suing for their rights, but for all of our rights. It will take similar actions, along with courageous citizen and political activism on a global scale, to quite literally save the world.
On April 17th, 2017, the 35th anniversary of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reminded us: “Today, I remind Canadians that we have no task greater than to stand on guard for one another’s liberties. The words enshrined in the Charter are our rights, freedoms, and – above all – our collective responsibility.” The Prime Minister was right. For that reason, we should not rest until the powerful men and women of the world like Mr. Trudeau himself are forced to reverse their environmental policies that threaten organized human life on Earth.
Meanwhile, midnight approaches.
Edited by Marissa Fortune.