In summary

As pediatricians, we hope the children will prevail in their suit against the federal government for its role in causing the climate crisis.

By Lisa Patel and Hannah Perrin, Special to CalMatters

Dr. Lisa Patel is clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at Stanford University and held a Presidential Management Fellows Program appointment at the Environmental Protection Agency, lisapatelmd@gmail.com. Dr. Hannah Perrin is clinical assistant professor at University of California, San Francisco, press@ourchildrenstrust.org. They wrote this commentary for CalMatters. This article does not necessarily represent the views of their employers.

“Where is the hope in today’s decision? Plaintiffs’ claims are based on science, specifically, an impending point of no return. If plaintiffs’ fears, backed by the government’s own studies, prove true, history will not judge us kindly. When the seas envelop our coastal cities, fires and droughts haunt our interiors, and storms ravage everything between, those remaining will ask: Why did so many do so little?” – Judge Josephine Staton, dissenting in Juliana v. United States (9th Cir. 2020)

Pediatricians do not usually cite appellate court decisions, but Judge Josephine Staton’s dissent in the landmark Juliana v. United States rings out like a clarion call.

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The young plaintiffs are suing the government for violating their constitutional right to life by creating a national energy system that causes climate change. On Jan. 17, in a split 2-1 decision, a panel on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the case, telling the plaintiffs to take their case to the executive and legislative branches, despite the fact that most are too young to vote. 

As front-line health care workers who see the catastrophic consequences of failed public policy, we write to support the youths’ effort to have the case heard en banc.

In California’s clinics and hospitals, we see the damage climate change is doing. The wildfire season began in May, due to abnormally hot and dry conditions. With their developing lungs, children are particularly vulnerable to the terrible smoke that has become a routine yearly occurrence, sending them in droves into our emergency rooms with trouble breathing. We’ve seen babies and older children admitted for dangerous dehydration during heat waves and displaced families with children suffering from toxic stress that places them at a higher lifetime risk for chronic illness.

In a rapidly warming world, food will become scarcer, air pollution worse and populations increasingly displaced. From the time they are in utero, having access to sufficient food, a safe place to live and clean air to breathe can determine whether children experience lives of health and opportunity or disease and suffering.

The medical community has written, protested and pleaded with our public officials to take this crisis seriously. But greenhouse gas emissions, sanctioned by our own government, continue at an alarming pace.

These past few months we have watched as countries like Australia and New Zealand acted swiftly and boldly in response to COVID-19, utilizing science and public health principles that ultimately flattened the curve. But our federal government approached the pandemic with a mix of denial and downplay, missing six critical weeks of planning. The result has been an explosion of cases and the highest number of COVID-19 deaths worldwide.

While the pandemic was not caused by our government, inaction has proved deadly. In the case of climate change, the government is literally promoting the cause of rapid and destabilizing warming through continued reliance on fossil fuels. And unlike this microscopic virus, there is an existing cure to the climate crisis: Decarbonize now.

We need every institution and individual with the power to change our trajectory to step up. 

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals should hear this case about the federal government’s role in causing the climate crisis. We hope the children will prevail to safeguard their own health and the health of generations to come. 

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Dr. Lisa Patel is clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at Stanford University and held a Presidential Management Fellows Program appointment at the Environmental Protection Agency, lisapatelmd@gmail.com. Dr. Hannah Perrin is clinical assistant professor at University of California, San Francisco, press@ourchildrenstrust.org. They wrote this commentary for CalMatters. This article does not necessarily represent the views of their employers.

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