4 june 2019

Kids Face Rising Health Risks from Climate Change, Doctors Warn as Juliana Case Returns to Court

* A federal appeals court hears arguments today as the government tries again to get the children’s climate lawsuit dismissed.
* Young plaintiffs in the children's climate lawsuit are already feeling the effects of climate change. Public health experts, including major health organizations and former U.S. surgeons general, warn the health risks will only get worse

Nina Pullano, Inside Climate News, June 4, 2019

The 21 children and young adults suing the federal government over climate change argue that they and their generation are already suffering the consequences of climate change, from worsening allergies and asthma to the health risks and stress that come with hurricanes, wildfires and sea level rise threatening their homes.

As their case heads back to court this week, some of the heaviest hitters in the public health arena—including 15 major health organization and two former U.S. surgeons general—are publicly backing them up.

Today's children will feel the health impacts of climate change into adulthood if the federal government doesn't transition away from fossil fuels and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, public health experts wrote in a letter published May 30 in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), echoing a larger court brief signed onto by major health organizations.

"More frequent and longer heat waves, increasing intensity of extreme weather events such as droughts and wildfires, worsening infectious-disease exposures, food and water insecurity, and air pollution from fossil-fuel burning all threaten to destabilize our public health and health care infrastructure," the authors wrote.

Children and infants are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, as their bodies are still developing, they said. Their respiratory rates are also higher, so particles from fossil fuel burning and ozone take a greater toll. Increasing temperatures contribute to heat stroke risk for children, and can harm babies in utero. And warming temperatures can affect the spread of disease-carrying vectors like ticks, which can transmit Lyme disease, and mosquitoes, which can carry viruses like Zika.

"These are affecting children's health now, and certainly affecting their future," said Frederica Perera, a co-author of the letter and the director of the Center for Children's Environmental Health at Columbia University. "It's not an abstraction, and not some future threat. It is happening now."

Researchers are only beginning to understand the magnitude of health issues caused by climate change, said Renee Salas, another co-author of the letter and an emergency medicine physician at Massachusetts General Hospital. "We are just scratching the surface in our understanding of what those health burdens truly are," she said.

Salas said she hopes the lawsuit and letter "can continue to make climate change personal for people, because health truly is that common denominator that we all share."

Government's Climate Duties and Failures

In their lawsuit, Juliana vs. United States, the children and young adults accuse the federal government of violating their rights by failing to take action on climate change and continuing to subsidize fossil fuels.

The lawsuit is based on the public trust doctrine, a legal concept that the government holds resources such as land, water or fisheries in trust for its citizens. Climate litigators contend that the government is a trustee of the atmosphere, too, and the young plaintiffs argue that the government abrogated its duty to limit fossil fuel use and cut greenhouse gases, despite knowledge for decades that combustion of fossil fuels adds carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and changes the climate.

The federal government has fought the case at every turn and tried repeatedly to get it dismissed.

On Tuesday, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit will hear the two sides' latest arguments as the judges decide whether the case will move forward in a lower court. (The arguments are expected to be livestreamed.)

The children's lawyers from Our Children's Trust will face off against a team led by U.S. Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Bossert Clark, a Trump administration appointee who earlier represented the oil giant BP in lawsuits over the nation's largest oil spill and has repeatedly challenged the science of climate change. So far in this case, the government's lawyers haven't contested the argument that climate change is harming the plaintiffs. Instead, they have said that the federal government is not responsible, that the court doesn't have the authority to order the political branches to act, and that a long trial would cause the government harm.

The plaintiffs are calling for sweeping changes in federal climate efforts and in government programs that subsidize or foster the development of fossil fuels. The trial, if it proceeds, could bring to light decades of federal policy on fossil fuels and climate change—including information previously unknown to the public.

'They Were Born Into This Problem'

The NEJM letter echoed an amicus brief filed in support of the young plaintiffs by nearly 80 physicians and researchers and 15 health organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Heart Association and the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

"There's a really robust body of scientific literature that supports each of these different kinds of health impacts that are already being observed and are projected to get worse and worse," said Shaun Goho, deputy director of the Emmett Environmental Law & Policy Clinic at Harvard Law School and one of the attorneys who filed the amicus brief.

"The Juliana generation is going to feel and suffer from those impacts in a way that's really different and more extreme than what any previous generation has felt," Goho said.

Two former U.S. surgeons general also weighed in, publishing an op-ed in The New York Times on Monday. Drs. Richard Carmona and David Satcher warned about several effects of climate change on health, from cognitive impairments due to malnutrition to lost school days and mental health concerns.

"The country has eliminated polio, reduced cancer death rates and raised life expectancy over time," they wrote. "Now, as the country faces the potentially catastrophic consequences of climate change, the country needs to understand the public health implications of a warming climate."

The former surgeons general, like the NEJM letter, pointed out that children inherited the changing climate that threatens their future.

"They were born into this problem; they did not create it," they wrote. "They are uniquely vulnerable: their developing bodies suffer disproportionately from climate change's most serious and deadly harms.

>>> Back to list