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Global WarmingThe Montana Climate Case and Our Obligation to the Future

The Montana Climate Case and Our Obligation to the Future

The Montana Climate Case and Our Obligation to the Future

In mid-August, a gaggle of young people from Montana won a breakthrough case in the worldwide struggle to attain environmental sustainability. Montana’s structure requires the state to guard the environment for future generations. As reported by David Gelles and Mike Baker within the Latest York Times:

“A bunch of young people in Montana won a landmark lawsuit on Monday when a judge ruled that the state’s failure to contemplate climate change when approving fossil fuel projects was unconstitutional…The ruling implies that Montana, a significant coal and gas producing state that gets one-third of its energy by burning coal, must consider climate change when deciding whether to approve or renew fossil fuel projects…The Montana case revolved around language within the state Structure that guarantees residents “the appropriate to a clean and healthful environment,” and stipulates that the state and individuals are accountable for maintaining and improving the environment “for present and future generations.” A handful of other states have similar guarantees, and young people in Hawaii, Utah and Virginia have filed lawsuits which can be slowly winding their way through courts. A federal case brought by young people, which had been stalled for years, is once more moving, heading toward a June trial in Oregon.

I often concentrate on the pragmatic issues and the tradeoffs that we must face as we transition to an environmentally sustainable economy, but today I need to concentrate on the moral imperative this case illuminates. None of us built this planet and created the bounty that makes our lives and our lifestyle possible. But a lot of us are parents and even grandparents and bear the responsibility for bringing latest human lives into being. We derive joy and emotional sustenance from our kids and their children, and it is an excellent a part of human existence. Lots of us haven’t enabled human life but have cared for fogeys, friends, and pets and connect emotionally with those living beings as well. A number of people have walked within the woods to experience and observe the natural world. Some depend on nature to hunt and fish and derive each physical and emotional sustenance from their time in natural settings. This joy and pleasure should never be taken as a right, and just as we restore a campsite to the condition that we found after we arrived, we must consider it reasonable to assume that we’d like to behave the identical way with the planet. For my part, each of us has an ethical obligation to make sure that latest human and non-human life forms on this planet benefit from the same opportunities to experience the natural world that we’ve.

This shouldn’t be a latest story. I often remark that in the primary environmental policy course I ever took back in 1975, we discussed our responsibility for the long run and browse Robert Heilbroner’s Enquiry into the Human Prospect with its afterward that explained what posterity does for humanity. During my final 12 months in highschool (1970), the James Madison Senior Yearbook (“The Log”) featured The Little Prince, who taught us that we were “accountable for what we tame.” In writing about our responsibility for the long run within the Latest York Times in 1975, Heilbroner wrote:

“Why should I lift a finger to affect events that could have no more meaning for me 75 years after my death than those who happened 75 years before I used to be born? There is no such thing as a rational answer to that terrible query. No argument based on reason will lead me to take care of posterity or to lift a finger in its behalf. Indeed, by every rational consideration, precisely the alternative answer is thrust upon us with irresistible force…I feel that the approaching generations, of their encounters with famine, war and the threatened lifecarrying capability of the globe… [humans will] glimpse into the void of a universe without man. I have to rest my ultimate faith on the invention by these future generations, because the ax of the executioner passes into their hands, of the transcendent importance of posterity for them.”

It’s been nearly a half-century since Heilbroner mused about posterity and self-interest. Perhaps the Montana case demonstrates recognition of the “transcendent importance of posterity.” I’m inspired by the courage and fortitude of the young people who find themselves suing government to guard their right to proceed to experience the natural world. There are visions of the long run where technology replaces nature and where we leave this planet in ruins and may only simulate nature in experiential entertainment (just like the Star Trek holodeck). We then leave this planet to plunder the resources of other planets. Climate change, declining American groundwater supplies, toxics, and biodiversity destruction are facts of life within the 21st century. People my age is not going to be around to experience the long-term impact of this damage, but we’ve caused it.

I actually have little patience for symbolic politics and destructive gestures like destroying artwork to protest environmental devastation, but I’m stuffed with admiration for the young people who find themselves using the law to speak and establish the principle of their right to nature. I used to be thrilled by the Montana case and deeply moved by Judge Kathy Seely’s ruling in favor of the young plaintiffs suing the State of Montana and her decision that these young people had “a fundamental constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment, which incorporates climate as a component of the environmental life-support system.”

There are individuals who strongly imagine that government has no business discouraging the mining and burning of fossil fuels. They make the compelling point that the causes of worldwide warming are global, and that local motion alone cannot prevent this manner of environmental degradation. On this view, the state structure should concentrate on local pollutants that impact local conditions. But pollution doesn’t recognize state and national boundaries, and our ethical responsibility for the planet must begin with those actions which can be under our control. Furthermore, a journey of a thousand miles at all times begins with a single step.

A case like this can be a landmark despite its limited practical application. It is vital since it is a sign of a paradigm shift—a change in how we perceive the world working. While the ideology and financial interests promoting fossil fuel extraction will persist for a while, advances in renewable energy technology have already begun to drive fossil fuels from the marketplace. This way of environmental degradation will eventually fade. But others will follow—especially the drive to develop land for housing and agriculture. The Montana decision provides a chance to influence the environmental impact of those activities in the long run.

We must concentrate on the long run and the well-being of those that will follow us. Often, environmental damage could be reversed, and ecologies could be restored, but some damage is irreversible. We’d like to cultivate an ethic of reverence for the land and practice humility as we exercise our drive to develop that land. Our goal should at all times be to attenuate our impact. Where the damage is great and irreversible, we must always seriously consider abandoning that development project and focus our capital and energy on one other location. Lots of our cities have abandoned buildings and even whole blocks which can be ripe for investment. Developing abandoned “brownfields” might well make more sense than developing pristine “greenfields.” The case brought by these young people from Montana should remain front of mind, and we must always take into consideration them and the others who will follow and work hard to make sure they’ll inherit a planet they’ll thrive on.


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