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Thursday, September 3, 2020

Superior Court justice dismisses RI youth suit

Court dismisses lawsuit seeking Rhode Island climate action 
By Peter Nightingale, Nature's Trust Rhode Island

Sea Level Rise and Rhode Island's Climate ChallengeLast week, Superior Court Judge Melissa Darigan dismissed a complaint filed by Nature's Trust Rhode Island against the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM). 

On behalf of 13 young Rhode Islanders and the Sisters of Mercy Ecology, the group filed suit after DEM had rejected an attempt that would have forced the state to address, systematically and meaningfully, the unfolding climate catastrophe and to take responsibility for  its share of greenhouse gas emissions.

With her decision Judge Darigan confirmed that all three branches of  Rhode Island government are failing to address the escalating climate emergency of planet Earth as is their duty under Rhode Island law.

Perhaps the most vivid example of this negligence is Rhode Island House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello's statement at the beginning of this year that, "There is nothing that Rhode Island can do to address climate change."[1]

Alex Duryea, one of the plaintiffs and a graduate student at the University of Rhode Island minced no words in response to Judge Darigan's decision:
“I’m really frustrated with the fact that this court case keeps bouncing around. Nobody is taking responsibility for ensuring that DEM and the State of Rhode Island are protecting my right to a future. Do you think I want to be suing the DEM? I have schoolwork to focus on, but I’m doing this because I feel like I have no other options at this point. And even this route is proving to be a dead end because nobody is willing to actually look at the fact that all these young people, who should focus on school, and friends, are out here demanding to HAVE a future. If DEM just took action to protect future generations, what’s the worst that could happen? We'd have a safer, cleaner future!”
Martina Muller, a University of Rhode Island Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in Natural Resource Sciences, concurred and observed that,
"Everyone in our government is pushing the responsibility to someone else. Every day we waste pointing fingers and arguing about whose job it is to do something, the time window of action is shrinking, and the scale of the response needed to avoid unthinkable climate catastrophe becomes that much bigger."
Judge Darigan's ruling makes it clear that the Rhode Island courts shirk their responsibility to protect the environment. This fits in with a regrettable national trend that started in the 1970s after the passage of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.

Almost two years have gone by since the prestigious Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that "rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society" were needed to avoid catastrophic climate change.[2] 

Judge Darigan's ruling makes it painfully clear that Rhode Island government is years behind the scientific consensus. This is all the more concerning because, according to renowned climate scientist James Hansen, "the IPCC, almost by its nature, tends to be 5-10 years behind state-of-the-art understanding."[3]

Despite the clear evidence to the contrary, Judge Darigan's reasoning explicitly denies that the young plaintiffs have suffered injury "in fact, economic or otherwise." The ruling is based on an unjust and outdated interpretation of the law. 

It flies in the face of common decency, environmental and climate justice, and the laws of nature. Most importantly, the ruling ignores the facts of the case and the trauma suffered already by the plaintiffs.

Stephen Follett, an undergraduate student at the University of Rhode Island and a plaintiff in the case, grew up in the coastal village of Snug Harbor in South Kingstown, Rhode Island. His family and community have suffered in more ways than economically from the impact of climate change on the fishing industry for over the last decades.

Follett emphasized that,
"The argument that we have not suffered as the result of the growing impact of climate change is completely unfounded. The ignorance of this claim is clear in the sight of the ports in Galilee which remain full of idle fishing vessels, all docked for one reason: there are no traditional fish left. These species more traditional to local fisheries, namely cod, lobster, and tuna, have all fled north to the Gulf of Maine and the Bay of Fundy due to the warming of local waters. This has deprived many residents of their livelihood."
Follett saw in his community that,
"These residents were once established and appreciated contributors to Rhode Island culture. However, with this loss of livelihood, these wonderful men and women can no longer afford the time to address government policy and matters with which they have dealt their whole lives. DEM ignored the testimony of fishermen about ecological change in the local waters and called their reports merely anecdotal."
Directly contradicting the Superior Court decision, Steven concludes that,
"A once vibrant community stripped of its voice through the negligence of larger monetary influences has caused real suffering for my family and my community. If Rhode Island is to set this precedent of inaction in response to climate change and protecting something so dear to our own local communities, we may never feel entitled to request the future action of our fellow states in this Union. Hopefully, one day our leaders will lead by example rather than through the continuous obfuscation of accountability."
Nature's Trust Rhode Island is in the process of considering a legal response to the Superior Court decision.