A Matter of Trust: What the Next Generation Wants for Mother's Day

Frustrated by inaction, teenagers are suing their state and federal governments in an attempt to protect what they see as their common trust and its capacity to support life as we know it.
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Imagine you wake up this morning to find out that a distant relative has died leaving you a trust fund of $1,000,000.

Sad news. But, to be honest, you never liked them much -- so very exciting stuff!

If it were me, I might jump online and take a more serious look at the new $100,000 Tesla Roadster that goes 0-60 in 3.7 seconds, not to mention 245 miles on a single charge. Or maybe sign my wife and myself up for a $400,000 get away into space aboard one of the newest Branson clean-tech ventures at Virgin Galactic. How about you?

But, wait! Before you start spending that money -- some bad news. After a closer examination, the terms of the trust state that you will never receive the principal -- just the services your $1,000,000 provides. Damn it.

The upside? That $1,000,000 will work for you and your children every year for eternity. At a reasonable rate of 5% or so, that's $50,000 a year. Sounds fair.

Now imagine that you get word that the trustees who oversee this arrangement are dipping into the principal of the trust. Even worse, you uncover their plans to spend every last penny over the course of the next 25 years -- maybe much sooner.

You'd be mad, right? You'd ask them to stop. Then ask again. If they didn't, you might even sue them for violating their duties as trustees?

Yesterday, in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington and in a federal court in California, that is exactly what a group of teenagers did.

But instead of financial trustees and a $1,000,000 trust fund, they are suing their state and federal governments in an attempt to protect what they see as their common trust -- the earth's atmosphere -- and its capacity to support life as we know it.

Sounds crazy, right? Not so much.

According to the Public Trust Doctrine -- a legal principle based on precedent that dates back to about the time the Mayans dominated Central America and Justinian tried to re-expand the Roman Empire -- it is the citizens of a country, state, or other ruling body that have common ownership over natural resources. Governments act solely as trustees.

These youth, frustrated by inaction, hope to find a judge who is both open-minded enough to rule that the Public Trust Doctrine covers the most common asset of all -- the atmosphere -- and bold enough to order the responsible government trustees to do what the science requires to protect the trust, rather than what is politically feasible.

And, to date, this has been quite a discrepancy.

Internationally and nationally, our atmospheric trustees -- in this case the governments of the world and the US Congress -- have yet to pass a meaningful law limiting and reducing annual or total carbon emissions. Here in the US, some states have jumped into the void -- with the most aggressive effort to date, I am proud to say, in my home state of Massachusetts where a recent climate action plan calls for 25% reductions from 1990 levels by 2020 and 80% by 2050.

But, according to many, even this ambitious Massachusetts plan is on the low end of what the science requires.

TrillionthTonne -- a site set up using data from the Department of Physics at the University of Oxford -- states that cumulative carbon emissions from fossil fuel use, cement production, and land-use change since massive human industrialization began are close to 550 billion tons.

In order to have a better than not chance of avoiding the worst consequences of climate change that number must never exceed 1 trillion tons -- leaving humanity with an atmosphere able to hold only another 450 billion tons or so of carbon. For perspective, in 2007, the world emitted about 30 billion tons. At current emissions rates, then, we have less than 15 years before things get ugly.

Now, admittedly, the economics of fixing this problem are pretty radical. It means retrofitting tens of millions of built structures, retiring hundreds of millions of old cars and ramping up efforts to produce new ones, upgrading and extending our nation's high speed rail system, and finding ways to tap the sun, wind, and heating/cooling power of the earth on an unprecedented scale.

But the economic cost of not doing these things -- the possibility of massive species extinction, increased drought, heat waves, floods, loss of fresh water, and rising temperatures -- is even greater. Not to mention the cost of BP oil spills, contaminated drinking water from hydrofracking, and nuclear meltdowns. Or the value we are losing in breaking a priceless system that keeps the planet in balance and, at least with modern technology, cannot be rebuilt.

Perhaps realizing that this is a big ask, and unwilling to let their fates rest in the hands of judges, these youths will also take to the streets and present their case to you -- the trust beneficiaries this Mother's Day and beyond -- with a series of iMatter youth marches scheduled from Beijing to Boston, Ghana to Greece, San Francisco to Seoul, South Korea.

According to lead organizer, Alec Loorz, "the youth will rise up in our communities and let the world know that climate change is not about money, it's not about power, it's not about convenience, it is about our survival. It's about the future of this and every generation to come."

So, this afternoon and this weekend, as you and I fill up at the pump, pull out our electricity-guzzling air conditioners for the summer, and turn on our big screens to watch the Bruins finish off the Flyers and the Celtics storm back from an 0-2 deficit (fill in your team name and situation here) please take a minute to think about these kids and their trust.

And this year and next as we vote for our local, state, and national leaders, we must try to think of ourselves as more than just citizens and of our government as more than just our leaders. We need to make sure that we, our cities, states, nations, and collective global community are doing all that we can as beneficiaries and trustees of an Atmospheric Trust that has been here for thousands of years, and that with our help will keep paying out dividends for thousands more.

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