In the Court of Public Opinion

Sometimes you can just tell when an effort is doomed.

Such is the case with a peculiar proceeding in Oregon this past week, where an effort to get the federal courts to do with the Obama administration allegedly will not is guaranteed to down in flames–the height of irony, as the court case in question claims Obama isn’t doing everything he can to address global warming.

CNN.com’s John D. Sutter has written a lengthy profile of the lead attorney in this case, Julia Olson of the group Our Children’s Trust. I share Olson’s passion for reducing the carbon pollution that threatens our children and grandchildren, but her preferred course of action is questionable, to say the least:

Olson will try to get US District Judge Ann Aiken, a Bill Clinton appointee, to feel the weight of the court’s responsibility to do what other branches of government so far have failed to do: Create a national plan to get greenhouse gas emissions to levels that scientists consider safe. She’s bringing the suit on behalf of 21 young people because children have more to lose with climate change than adults. They’ll be living the climate-changed future we all should fear…

Some legal scholars consider the climate kids’ case to be a long shot. Olson [claims] that the federal government, by failing to adequately regulate greenhouse gas pollution and by continuing to lease new federal lands and waters for fossil fuel extraction, as recently as this year, is violating the kids’ constitutional right to life, liberty and property. (Warming is causing the seas to rise, for example, and one plaintiff lives in coastal Florida). She’ll also claim that children are a class that’s being discriminated against when it comes to climate change: They’re not causing this problem, and yet they will be disproportionately subjected to its dire consequences…

Olson and her team are asking the federal court in Oregon to order the US government to create a comprehensive plan to help lower global carbon dioxide levels to 350 parts per million, which they claim is what the government’s own scientists recommended in 1990. (That metric is also widely regarded as being “safe” from dangerous warming).

Here’s the problem: any “comprehensive plan to help lower global carbon dioxide levels to 350 parts per million” would have to involve shutting down every coal-fired power plant in the United States…banning all oil drilling in the United States…enjoining any state from engaging in fracking…compelling American drivers to give up their gas-guzzling SUVs and switch over to electric vehicles…and ordering radical changes to traditional agricultural practices.

I’d love to see all of this happen. I’d love to have the federal courts mandate such changes. However, the federal courts are never going to provide that level of relief to the plaintiffs, or anything close to it. You’ll see Donald Trump at a Black Lives Matter rally before you see the federal courts move as aggressively on climate as Olson presumably wants them to.

Look, I don’t gainsay the concerns of Olson and her plaintiffs, who are all very wise beyond their years. (One of the plaintiffs, Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, was quite impressive in his June 2016 appearance on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, although something tells me Maher wouldn’t have brought the kid on if he happened to be Muslim. However, instead of trying to convince federal judges that Obama has been craven on climate, wouldn’t these plaintiffs be better off encouraging members of their extended family to vote and volunteer with an eye towards ensuring that Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell won’t be running the House and Senate as of January 2017? If both houses of Congress were to change hands, a bill that establishes an economy-wide price on carbon would have a very good shot at becoming the law of the land–a much better shot than trying to cut carbon though the courts.

They say hard cases make bad law. While I embrace Julia Olson’s empathy for our environment, this is a bad case, and she will sustain a hard defeat in the court of law.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.