EUGENE, Oregon - Nearly two dozen children, aged 8 to 19, are challenging law makers and leaders alike to force changes that area affecting global warming and climate changes. They have appeared in federal court wearing nose rings and braces, suits too big in the shoulders and the backs of some heads barely visible above wooden benches. The kids are united by suing the U.S. government, including President Barack Obama, for failing to act rapidly to stop climate change.
A federal judge is considering a motion for dismissal of the suit. Lawyers for both the government and trade groups representing Exxon Mobil, BP and other energy companies asked U.S. Magistrate Judge Tom Coffin on Wednesday to throw out the suit, The Register-Guard reported.
"We sat in this courtroom today, and we have filed this lawsuit, because the leaders we have elected to take care of our planet, and to take care of our country for our generation and those to follow, are failing to do their job," said Xiuhtezcatl Tonatiuh, a 15-year-old from Colorado who is one of the 21 young plaintiffs. "My generation is going to be inheriting the crisis we see all around us today. We are standing up not only for the environment and the Earth and the atmosphere but for the rights we have to live in a healthy, just and sustainable world."
Defense attorneys argued that the lawsuit fails to state valid legal claims and instead, centers on issues that should be decided by government agencies and lawmakers. They also argue the plaintiffs are unable to bring the litigation because they haven't shown any actual or imminent injury, instead claiming only general harms.
"This is the biggest issue on the planet," said Columbia University climate scientist James Hansen after the hearing.
Julia Olson, an attorney for the plaintiffs, argued that the lawsuit has legal grounds important for the sake of the environment.
"Our nation will be properly served when this court exercises its constitutional duty and hears this case," she said.
Coffin said he will prepare a ruling on the lawsuit's fate at an unspecified later date.
"At its core, this case is about survival and whether the federal defendants can continue to threaten it," said Julia Olson, lead attorney for the kids.
That may sound like hyperbole, but it isn't. Scientists and the U.S. government have known for decades that burning fossil fuels and chopping down rainforests moves CO2 from the ground into the atmosphere -- and too much of it makes the Earth hotter and hotter. The consequences are stark, from rising seas that could swallow island nations to deadly heatwaves, mass extinctions in the natural world and the spread of diseases.
Lives and property are at risk, and since climate change only gets worse as we pump more pollution into the atmosphere, young people have far more at stake than older folks.
For future humans, the very habitability of the planet is in jeopardy.
Climate change is a change in the statistical distribution of weather patterns when that change lasts for an extended period of time (i.e., decades to millions of years). Climate change may refer to a change in average weather conditions, or in the time variation of weather around longer-term average conditions (i.e., more or fewer extreme weather events). Climate change is caused by factors such as biotic processes, variations in solar radiation received by Earth, plate tectonics, and volcanic eruptions. Certain human activities have also been identified as significant causes of recent climate change, often referred to as global warming.
Scientists actively work to understand past and future climate by using observations and theoretical models. A climate record—extending deep into the Earth's past—has been assembled, and continues to be built up, based on geological evidence from borehole temperature profiles, cores removed from deep accumulations of ice, floral and faunal records, glacial and periglacial processes, stable-isotope and other analyses of sediment layers, and records of past sea levels. More recent data are provided by the instrumental record. General circulation models, based on the physical sciences, are often used in theoretical approaches to match past climate data, make future projections, and link causes and effects in climate change.
The most general definition of climate change is a change in the statistical properties (principally its mean and spread) of the climate system when considered over long periods of time, regardless of cause. Accordingly, fluctuations over periods shorter than a few decades, such as El Niño, do not represent climate change.
The term sometimes is used to refer specifically to climate change caused by human activity, as opposed to changes in climate that may have resulted as part of Earth's natural processes. In this sense, especially in the context of environmental policy, the term climate change has become synonymous with anthropogenic global warming. Within scientific journals, global warming refers to surface temperature increases while climate change includes global warming and everything else that increasing greenhouse gas levels affect.
On the broadest scale, the rate at which energy is received from the Sun and the rate at which it is lost to space determine the equilibrium temperature and climate of Earth. This energy is distributed around the globe by winds, ocean currents, and other mechanisms to affect the climates of different regions.
Factors that can shape climate are called climate forcings or "forcing mechanisms". These include processes such as variations in solar radiation, variations in the Earth's orbit, variations in the albedo or reflectivity of the continents and oceans, mountain-building and continental drift and changes in greenhouse gas concentrations. There are a variety of climate change feedbacks that can either amplify or diminish the initial forcing. Some parts of the climate system, such as the oceans and ice caps, respond more slowly in reaction to climate forcings, while others respond more quickly. There are also key threshold factors which when exceeded can produce rapid change.
Forcing mechanisms can be either "internal" or "external". Internal forcing mechanisms are natural processes within the climate system itself (e.g., the thermohaline circulation). External forcing mechanisms can be either natural (e.g., changes in solar output) or anthropogenic (e.g., increased emissions of greenhouse gases).
Whether the initial forcing mechanism is internal or external, the response of the climate system might be fast (e.g., a sudden cooling due to airborne volcanic ash reflecting sunlight), slow (e.g. thermal expansion of warming ocean water), or a combination (e.g., sudden loss of albedo in the arctic ocean as sea ice melts, followed by more gradual thermal expansion of the water). Therefore, the climate system can respond abruptly, but the full response to forcing mechanisms might not be fully developed for centuries or even longer.
Internal forcing mechanisms
Slight variations in Earth's orbit lead to changes in the seasonal distribution of sunlight reaching the Earth's surface and how it is distributed across the globe. There is very little change to the area-averaged annually averaged sunshine; but there can be strong changes in the geographical and seasonal distribution. The three types of orbital variations are variations in Earth's eccentricity, changes in the tilt angle of Earth's axis of rotation, and precession of Earth's axis. Combined together, these produce Milankovitch cycles which have a large impact on climate and are notable for their correlation to glacial and interglacial periods, their correlation with the advance and retreat of the Sahara, and for their appearance in the stratigraphic record.
The IPCC notes that Milankovitch cycles drove the ice age cycles, CO2 followed temperature change "with a lag of some hundreds of years," and that as a feedback amplified temperature change. The depths of the ocean have a lag time in changing temperature (thermal inertia on such scale). Upon seawater temperature change, the solubility of CO2 in the oceans changed, as well as other factors impacting air-sea CO2 exchange.
"Science has made enormous inroads in understanding climate change and its causes, and is beginning to help develop a strong understanding of current and potential impacts that will affect people today and in coming decades. This understanding is crucial because it allows decision makers to place climate change in the context of other large challenges facing the nation and the world. There are still some uncertainties, and there always will be in understanding a complex system like Earth's climate. Nevertheless, there is a strong, credible body of evidence, based on multiple lines of research, documenting that climate is changing and that these changes are in large part caused by human activities. While much remains to be learned, the core phenomenon, scientific questions, and hypotheses have been examined thoroughly and have stood firm in the face of serious scientific debate and careful evaluation of alternative explanations."
—?United States National Research Council, Advancing the Science of Climate Change Of most concern in these anthropogenic factors is the increase in CO2 levels due to emissions from fossil fuel combustion, followed by aerosols (particulate matter in the atmosphere) and the CO2 released by cement manufacture. Other factors, including land use, ozone depletion, animal agriculture and deforestation, are also of concern in the roles they play – both separately and in conjunction with other factors – in affecting climate, microclimate, and measures of climate variables.