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Thursday, November 7, 2019

Young RI climate activists wait to see if their case will be heard

Court to decide if it has jurisdiction over climate case against DEM more than a year and a half after filing of complaint
October 29th, Superior Court Judge Melissa Darigan decided on a timetable that will lead to a decision if the court has jurisdiction over a case filed by Nature’s Trust Rhode Island against the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM). 

This timetable was issued almost a year after the case was filed in Superior Court.

DEM has the lead responsibility in Rhode Island to maintain a healthy environment for the citizens of the state. 

On September 5 of 2018, Nature’s Trust Rhode Island, on behalf of 13 young people and three organizations, filed a citizen’s petition with DEM. It contained a plan to remedy the departments failure to address global climate change in a way consistent with the demands laid out by the best, latest climate science.


“The earth is suffering,” said Chloe Moers, a student at the Met High School in Providence. “We cannot wait forever; every moment we wait, a life may be lost. The DEM is here to protect our home yet this is not what is happening. They must realize that this is so much bigger than them.”

Sister Mary Pendergast, Director of Ecology at Sisters of Mercy Northeast Community, added: “Many of us stand in intergenerational solidarity with these courageous young people. Anyone with eyes to see will understand that the youth are rising up all over the world! DEM knows this and it knows the right thing to do. We’ll wait.”

In October of 2018, a month after the petition was filed, DEM rejected the plan. DEM provided no credible explanation, but observed that the requested actions were unprecedented. 

Days after DEM’s rejection, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a Special Report stating that, in fact, unprecedented global action was required to avoid a climate catastrophe. The following month, November 2018, Nature’s Trust RI filed a lawsuit in Superior Court in Providence challenging DEM’s determination.

Since then, DEM has not responded meaningfully to a request filed in April of this year for clarification. A valid response would have allowed the court to decide the case effectively. 

In July, Nature’s Trust Rhode Island asked the court to compel DEM to do as requested. A hearing had been scheduled for August 29 to decide this matter, but, at the last minute, Judge Long dropped the case stating that she had a conflict of interest. This Monday, the hearing scheduled originally for August, took place.

Judge Darigan, after consulting with the parties stated that she wanted to first focus on a threshold issue: whether the court in fact has had jurisdiction over the case. The judge expressed surprise that this issue had not yet been addressed almost a year after the case filed. 

She ordered DEM to file paperwork dealing with this issue on or before December 15 of this year, and gave Nature’s Trust Rhode Island a month after filing to respond. Thereafter, DEM will have a few more days to reply to Natures Trust RI’s response. Finally, the Court will schedule a hearing on the matter.

Michael Kearny of Sunrise Providence expressed dismay by stating: “While I appreciate that this new judge is taking the case seriously, I was disappointed that the hearing was postponed for at least several months, especially given all the previous delays. The threat of climate change is looming large. We don’t have years to wait while this case drags on. We need bold and immediate action from leaders at all levels of government, including our courts and the RI DEM, if we’re going to survive this crisis.”

Meghan Janicki, a student at West Warwick High School said: “We are a society based on the value in doing good. Any action to save our planet from the catastrophic effects of climate change have no reason to not be taken or ignored.”

Philip Tierney of Providence, age 15. added: “I hope kids in the future will understand that at least we tried to do something to stop climate change.”

As the IPCC mentioned in its report of October of 2018, humanity has roughly a decade to put its climate house in order. Since then, a year has gone by without significant progress. Unenforceable state goals remain the same as those set years ago, before the new evidence of urgency. Nature is the ultimate decider of these proceedings and she is unlikely to suspend her laws while humans haggle over matters of jurisdiction.

Alexandra Duryea, a graduate student at the University of Rhode Island, summed up the plight of her generation saying: “The pace of this case is very frustrating given the diminishing amount of time we have left to take action on climate change. We are in the midst of a climate emergency. We are running out of time, time we will never get back. I just wish the older generation would feel the urgency and panic we young people feel when thinking about the destruction of our future.”

Peter Nightingale is a theoretical physicist and teaches at the University of Rhode Island. He strives to leave behind a more just, peaceful, and sustainable post-capitalist world for future generations, and for his children and grandchildren in particular.