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Youth Petition Dem to Mitigate Climate Change

by Wendy Fachon

Nature’s Trust Rhode Island, a youth-driven campaign for the legal right to a healthy climate, joined by Sisters of Mercy Ecology, initiated legal action to compel the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) to step up and do its fair share to stop climate change. On September 5, the organization delivered a petition to the DEM and started a 30-day clock ticking. During that time, DEM is expected to either initiate a public process to consider and implement this proposal, or it will have to justify its inaction to the courts.

Nature’s Trust RI was inspired by Mary Christina Wood, author of Nature’s Trust: Environmental Law for a New Ecological Age. The book exposes the problems in environmental law and offers transformational change based on the public trust doctrine. The trust doctrine asserts public property rights to crucial resources. Its core logic compels government, as trustee, to protect natural inheritance such as air and water for all humanity. This approach empowers citizens worldwide to protect their inalienable ecological rights for generations to come.

Adults support youth by composing the legal details of the petition, so the youth can focus on the advocacy work. The petition delivered to DEM shows that state agencies have not lived up to their obligations according to the Rhode Island Constitution. This neglect of duty has been on display in the agency’s role in issuing permits for major fossil fuel projects, such as the expansion of the compressor station in Burrillville, and the expansion of the liquefied natural gas (LNG) facility in Fields Point.

A freshman student at the University of Rhode Island has lived all of his life in the coastal village of Snug Harbor. The warming and acidifying ocean has negatively impacted the fishing industry, so that his father can no longer make a living fishing. His father saw it coming 25 years ago, but DEM told him at the time that his evidence was merely anecdotal. The lesson the student learned is, “I must assert with utmost passion and sincerity that I believe the government of Rhode Island is not upholding their responsibility as a trustee of our environment, and I must hope that I am not silenced just as my father was stifled by the word ‘anecdotal’ 25 years ago.”

The regulations that the petition asks DEM to put in place are based on the best available science. The petition also relies on duties contained in the state’s constitution to protect the public trust. Environmental justice is another core principle, one that is clearly violated by the proposed expansion of the LNG facility at Fields Point.

Much of what climate scientists have predicted for the last 50 years is already happening, but actual developments have outpaced projections. In the presence of current reverse action at the federal level, it is clear that each state must act promptly and boldly to eliminate fossil fuel emissions and draw down those already wreaking havoc with our global weather system. Youth and families are encouraged to share personal stories and science-based evidence. The petition and more information can be found at NaturesTrustRI.org.