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These kid climate activists are winning

These kid climate activists of Washington state claimed a big victory Tuesday, when Governor Jay Inslee directed regulators to cap carbon emissions.
Oil refinery in Anacortes, Wash., on Jan 20, 2015. (Photo by Kevin Schafer/Moment/Getty)
Oil refinery in Anacortes, Wash., on Jan 20, 2015.

The kid climate activists of Washington state -- currently suing over the state's carbon emission goals -- claimed a big victory Tuesday, when Gov. Jay Inslee directed regulators to cap emissions and curb them 50% by mid-century.

“Carbon pollution and the climate change it causes pose a very real and existential threat to our state,” Inslee said in a statement. 

This was no random burst of executive action. The governor’s announcement follows a groundbreaking ruling last month, a legal decision that still has the feel of a half-baked Hollywood plot point.

It began when a group of kids, convinced their government was not doing enough to slow global warming, turned to the courts to pressure their governor and protect the future.

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They petitioned the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The state initially declined. But a judge agreed with the kids, asking the state Department of Ecology to reconsider the petition. 

It marked the first time a court had ordered a state regulatory body to consider “the best available science” and “do its part to address climate risks.” Regulators were given until August 7th to come up with a response, but Gov. Inslee seems to have beat them to it.

Known as one of the greenest governors in the country, he held a 90-minute meeting with five of the kids — ages 11 to 15 — in his office less than two weeks ago. They asked for his support. As far as the kids are concerned, Inslee just delivered it. 

“We are all really grateful that Gov. Inslee took our thoughts seriously and is helping Washington lead the battle against the climate crisis and towards climate stability,” said 14-year-old petitioner Wren Wagenbach. 

“We are very happy that the Governor is stepping up and telling Ecology to step up, too,” added petitioner Gabe Mandell.  

Gov. Inslee was already committed to a carbon cap, but all of his major climate proposals have failed to pass the legislature since he took office in 2013. Tuesday’s announcement marks a shift in strategy, one that mirror’s President Obama’s efforts to implement his own climate plan. 

“This is not the comprehensive approach we could have had with legislative action,” Inslee said in a release. “But Senate Republicans and the oil industry have made it clear that they will not accede to any meaningful action on carbon pollution so I will use my authority under the state Clean Air Act to take these meaningful first steps.”

The plan would ensure the state cut greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020; to 25% below 1990 levels by 2035; and to 50% below 1990 levels by 2050, according to the governor’s office. That might not be enough to satisfy the kid climate activists.

One of their advisors is Dr. James Hansen, NASA’s former chief climate scientist, and the first person to warn congress of catastrophic global warming. But at least some of the adults seem to be pleased.

“Today marks the first time a Governor has ordered a rule making to move forward to protect his state’s young citizens,” said Julia Olson, executive director of Our Children’s Trust, which organized the lawsuit. 

The Oregon-based nonprofit has spearheaded similar lawsuits in all 50 states and against the federal government. Each of those legal efforts has fallen short in one way or another. Until now. 

The victory is based on an emerging legal framework in the fight against climate change: the idea that the kids have a constitutional right to a clean and healthy atmosphere. This approach treats nature as a public trust, protected by government, paid to future generations. The same principle allows states to regulate fishing and hunting.

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In years past, skeptics have called the strategy of Our Children’s Trust big hearted but legally feeble. The decision in Washington will help repair that image. An even larger victory overseas could be the start of a judicial sea change akin to the one that lifted gay marriage.  

In the Netherlands this month, a partner of Our Children’s Trust took the Dutch government to court, hoping to force deeper cuts to carbon emissions country-wide. The group won, and it used a version of the same argument that’s been successful for the first time in America. 

The governor’s request is expected to take up to a year, but on Wednesday state regulators are scheduled to meet with the kid climate activists and their attorney.

They say that the subject is a sweet one: a settlement in favor of the future.