The Last Best Hope?

Congress is dragging its feet in tackling global warming. Our current president is trying to address the problem, but his powers are limited. That leaves the courts, the third pillar of our government's triumvirate. Are they our last best hope to set in motion an aggressive, comprehensive national effort to curb global warming?

Virtually every living organism on the earth's surface will be adversely impacted in some way. But a tree can't go to court to enjoin a polluter that is heating up the planet and jeopardizing survivability. Wildlife can't seek legal redress for human-induced climate change that is degrading habitat.

That is certainly the case in our country despite the best efforts of the late Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, an outspoken conservationist. Dissenting in a 1972 case, he wrote that "protecting nature's ecological equilibrium should lead to the conferral of standing upon environmental objects to sue for their own preservation."

If non-human organisms cannot legally compel government to address climate change, do the American people have any recourse?

Forcing a government through a lawsuit to act on behalf of humanity might sound like a stretch, but not in the Netherlands. In response to an environmental group's petition, a Dutch court recently ruled that the national government had an inherent societal obligation to take decisive action against global warming. Consequently, the court ordered the Dutch government to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25 percent from 1990 levels in the next five years.

Will this set a precedent for jurisprudence in other countries, including our own? The potential certainly exists. In fact, some 130 countries (unfortunately excluding us) have constitutions in which citizens are assigned the right to a healthy environment, with the state obligated to protect that right.

In our country, the seeds of judicial change may have already been sown. In Seattle on June 23, a King County Superior Court Judge held that the Washington State Department of Ecology was required to institute the most stringent greenhouse gas emission reductions feasible based on the latest scientific consensus. That was the demand of eight youthful petitioners who brought the lawsuit under the auspices of Our Children's Trust. This Oregon-based non-profit organization is dedicated to bringing us in line with other nations that have recognized the public's legal right to a healthy environment and stable climate.

Will this Washington state trial court's opinion ever resonate within the august chambers of the U.S. Supreme Court in the nation's capital?

Stay tuned.