The Climate Kids Are Heading Back to Court

The Department of Ecology is still drafting its carbon emissions rule. Kids to Ecology: Hurry up.

Update: Well, well, well. Turns out these kids knew what they were talking about. On Friday, Judge Hollis Hill ruled from the bench that the State Department of Ecology must complete a climate plan by year's end, based on a lawsuit brought by eight pint-sized activists who sued the state over its inaction toward protecting the climate. The Seattle Times has a full report on Hill's ruling here.

Original story:

Nope, it's not over yet: the eight kid plaintiffs who sued the state of Washington last year for its inaction on climate change are at it again. The grownups are just too slow.

Their attorney, Andrea Rodgers, filed a motion on Wednesday asking King County Superior Court Judge Hollis Hill to reconsider her ruling. Judge Hill could make a decision immediately, or require another round of oral arguments.

Here's Rodgers' reasoning: When the kids sued the state, they technically lost, but in a way, they won. They'd been petitioning the Department of Ecology to issue a carbon rule according the best available climate science -- largely by invoking the Public Trust Doctrine, a legal principle that says it's the government's job to protect natural resources for its citizens -- and Judge Hollis Hill agreed with them on every point, more or less. The only reason they lost their case is that the Department of Ecology was already doing what they were asking for. Fair enough.

So, on January 6, 2016, Ecology did release a draft carbon emissions rule. There were a series of public hearings scheduled throughout the spring, with plans for final adoption this summer.

But then, on February 26, the agency withdrew its draft. It needed more time. According to Department of Ecology spokesperson Camille St. Onge, that January rule would've had to have been officially adopted within 180 days, per a state law called the Administrative Procedure Act. Feedback from stakeholders complicated things far too significantly for the rule to be ready by the summer, though. Many businesses thought it went too far; many environmentalists thought it didn't go far enough.

"Because we withdrew the rule," St. Onge says, "that six-month clock is not ticking, which was the point of the withdrawal." Ecology says it will release a new draft this summer.

But there's no legal means to hold Ecology to its promise, Rodgers says. "There's nothing requiring that they're going to do it" in a timely manner; "why should we believe that they're going to do it on their own?"

Indeed, the Washington State Department of Ecology has been calling climate change an urgent global crisis for the past 26 years. As Rodgers outlines in her motion for relief, in 1990, this same agency wrote that the "potential impacts of global warming dwarf those of other environmental threats." It knew then, and knew it again in 2008, when it wrote that "the science is clear that we must move forward quickly to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in order to mitigate its effects." And in December 2014, it issued a report arguing that the state's existing emissions rules were not enough.

To Rodgers, this is maddening. "You know what? Time is running out," she says. "For Ecology to say, 'We rushed getting the rule out,' or whatever.... 26 years is a very long time to get it right."

Rodgers and her team are "hoping that the Judge will recognize that Ecology misrepresented what they were planning on doing. Nobody is talking about the urgency of this crisis" -- in a way that leads to action, anyway.

In the words of one 11-year-old climate activist, "We need to do something! Why won't you understand that?! Whyyyyy?!"

And sure, this might lead nowhere.

"These are very hard motions to win," says Rodgers. "We're very realistic in that regard. But somebody has to hold the agency's feet to the fire. And the longer we wait the worse it gets. To keep on kicking the can down the road... it's just unacceptable."

Update: Ecology spokesperson Camille St. Onge responded to this post, emphasizing how much of a priority this is for the Department. "The notion that we’ve shutdown, even temporarily, is mistaken," she wrote. "We haven’t stopped. We are working actively and quickly to update the rule to integrate feedback from environmental and industry stakeholders for a workable rule that makes real carbon reductions."

Ecology is offering a Clean Air Rule Webinar on April 27 from 2 to 3 p.m. to share the latest information with the public.

Sara Bernard writes about environment and education, among other things, for Seattle Weekly. She can be reached at sbernard@seattleweekly.com or 206-467-4370. Follow her on Twitter at @saralacy. Get more from your favorite writers by subscribing to our weekly newsletters.

 
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