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December 20, 2012
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Pennsylvania Youth Files Climate Change Lawsuit
Making Sixteen Public Trust Cases to Protect the Atmosphere
Harrisburg, Pennsylvania – Ashley Funk, an 18-year-old from Mount Pleasant, filed a lawsuit today in the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) on the issue of whether the DEP has a constitutional obligation to protect the atmosphere and other natural resources, even if the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has not acted to regulate carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.
Ashley’s is the newest Atmospheric Trust Litigation (ATL) case to be filed in the United States, making it the 14th case in the United States along with two international suits and dozens of administrative actions in every other state in the country, all on behalf of youth pleading for their rights. In October, Ashley filed her third petition for rulemaking to the DEP in an attempt to get the state to issue rules on carbon emissions and reporting, as part of the TRUST Campaign, a national youth-led effort. But, after reading the latest rejection of her petition, Ashley decided to file a lawsuit, hoping that the Court will rule that Pennsylvania must live up to its constitutional duty to protect the public’s right to a healthy atmosphere and a stable climate. Pennsylvania is the fourth largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the nation, and Ashley is determined to change that.
In its determination not to proceed with Ashley’s petition, DEP relied on a provision in the Commonwealth’s Air Pollution Control Act that says the Commonwealth may not issue rules stricter than U.S. EPA’s rules on ambient air quality standards. Whether that statutory provision is constitutional and whether DEP has properly interpreted it are questions now before the Commonwealth Court.
“Climate change is the leading environmental and public health issue in the 21st century,” said Kenneth T. Kristl, Associate Professor of Law at the Widener University School of Law and Director of Widener’s Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic, who will serve as lead counsel in the cases. “This case raises significant questions about how the Commonwealth will protect its children and future generations from the negative effects of climate change.”
To make her case, Ashley’s petition to the court relies on Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, which states:
The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.
In response to DEP’s decision not to act on Ashley’s petition, Dr. James Hansen, the nation’s top climatologist, said,
“Benjamin Franklin, I'm quite sure, would say it is nonsense that Pennsylvania must wait for Washington to protect our young people. The science is clear, climate is already beginning to change. We must reduce fossil fuel emissions rapidly for our own sake, as well as our children's and grandchildren's.”
Hansen has strong ties to Pennsylvania, as a resident of Kintnersville, in Bucks County, with children and grandchildren in Allentown. In addition, his scientific work has formed the basis for the legal actions taken by Ashley and other youth around the country.
Hansen has written that to protect the natural systems on which humans depend, average global surface heating must not exceed 1.8° Fahrenheit and concentrations of atmospheric CO2 must decline to 350 ppm this century. We are currently over 390 ppm of CO2. To accomplish this reduction, Hansen and other renowned scientists conclude that CO2 emissions need to decline by 6% each year starting in 2013. Ashley’s lawsuit seeks rules that would allow Pennsylvania to reduce CO2 emissions consistent with these levels. Dr. Hansen’s recent paper is available here: http://ourchildrenstrust.org/sites/default/files/Hansen%20et%20al%202.16.12.pdf
Growing up in a poor community dependent on the coal industry, Ashley has devoted her attention to environmental justice. After kick-starting the first recycling program and anti-litter campaign in her town, Ashley began to educate her community about the health hazards of practices like hydro-fracking and mountain top removal coal mining. She also has an active role in the Sierra Student Coalition and volunteers time caring for seniors.
After this summer’s unprecedented decision in the Texas ATL case, declaring the atmosphere to be a public trust resource pursuant to the Texas Constitution and the Public Trust Doctrine, and a Judge denying defendants motion to dismiss a similar New Mexico ATL case, Ashley is hopeful a strong decision to protect public trust resources will emerge in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and around the nation.
“Growing up in Southwestern Pennsylvania, I have seen firsthand how the mining and drilling of fossil fuels have forever polluted waterways and fragile ecosystems,” said Ashley. “Now, through the burning of these same fuels, we continue to damage our most precious resource: our atmosphere. In Pennsylvania and beyond, we need to change legislation so that the health of our atmosphere and people worldwide will be protected. By filing this lawsuit, I hope to represent my generation, and my state, in order to make that change happen.”
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To learn more about the Pennsylvania Climate Case visit: http://ourchildrenstrust.org/state/pennsylvania
To watch a short film featuring Ashley visit: http://ourchildrenstrust.org/video/368/trust-pennsylvania
Ashley is represented by Kenneth Kristl of Widener University School of Law Environmental Law Clinic, James May ofWidener University School of Law, and Jay Duffy of the Clean Air Council.
Clean Air Council (“Council”) is a member-supported, non-profit environmental organization dedicated to protecting everyone's right to breathe clean air. The Council works through public education, community advocacy, and government oversight to ensure enforcement of environmental laws. Founded in 1967, the Council has now grown to approximately 7,000 members.
Our Children's Trust is a nonprofit focused on protecting earth’s natural systems for current and future generations. We are supporting youth in the coordinated Atmospheric Trust Litigation effort. We are here to empower youth as they stand up for their lawful inheritance: a healthy planet. We are mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers. We are adults, part of the ruling generation, and we care about the future of our children—and their children's children. www.ourchildrenstrust.org/