US citizens sue government for climate change

Feature story - 27 August, 2002
This year we have seen an alarming number of climate related disasters - floods in Europe, devastating storms in Asia, heat waves across North America - and these types of disasters are expected to increase in frequency and intensity as our climate heats up. We may all face the effects of climate change in our home towns eventually, but citizens who are being impacted by climate change are taking the US government to court.

Look closer and you will see that US tax dollars are helping to fund climate change.

The US is currently the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the main cause of climate change. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit (who are members of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, and all US citizens) are victims of climate change, and claim that the government's use of tax dollars to fund dirty fossil fuel projects is what is driving climate change around the world.

It all starts when US citizens hand over their tax dollars to the government. The suit charges that the Export-Import Bank of the United States (Ex-Im) and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), two governmental agencies, financed dozens of fossil fuel projects that significantly contribute to climate change, in violation of federal environmental law.

By bringing on the lawsuit, the plaintiffs want to force OPIC and Ex-Im to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires all federally funded agencies to conduct an environmental review of programs and project-specific decisions having a significant effect on the environment.

Arthur and Anne Berndt own and operate Maverick Farm in Sharon, Vermont. They have owned Maverick Farm since 1988 and are members of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. Maverick Farm is one of the largest maple syrup producers in Vermont producing maple syrup from sap drawn from approximately 15,000 to 16,000 sugar maple trees.

However, the Berndts understand that as a result of climate change, there will be a significant northward shift in the prevailing forest types. According to official US government reports, the maple-beech-birch forest is projected to shift north into Canada and will no longer be dominant in the northeastern US by the late 21st century. At current rates of warming, this shift is likely to occur with the next ten to twenty years, and possibly sooner if the warming is accompanied by outbreaks of pests or disease.

"We all feel nervous about climate change," says Arthur Berndt. "If we have no maples we have no farm income and the aesthetic value of the land will be devastated. This would adversely affect the economic and conservation value of my farm."

Another plaintiff, Dr. Phillip Dustan, is a full-time professor in the Biology Department of the College of Charleston in Charleston, South Carolina. He is a member of Friends of the Earth.

Dr. Dustan started his study of coral reefs in 1969. Much of his work has focused on coral reefs off the Florida Keys. In 1974, he established long-term reef monitoring sites in the Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary. This site is the oldest permanently marked coral reef study site in the Eastern Atlantic/Caribbean area.

Climate change is a significant factor responsible for this loss of coral. Climate change is affecting Phillip because its effects diminish opportunities for fundamental biological research and his source of livelihood. His family is also at risk because of climate change.

They bought land on John's Island, in South Carolina in 1999 and are building a home there now approximately 5.5 miles from the ocean and on land eight feet above sea level. Climate change is causing rising sea levels, increased storm severity, and increased storm frequency. As a result, Phillip and his family are building the home higher and stronger than required by current code even though the home is over five miles from the ocean. This is costing him a significant amount of money. His insurance for the new home is more expensive, which Phillip believes is attributable to the effects of climate change.

Instead of funding renewable energy solutions to climate change, federal agencies like the Ex-Im and OPIC are funneling taxpayer dollars to increase the profits of corporate polluters such as ExxonMobil who is the number one corporate villain on climate change.

Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the City of Boulder Colorado are representing their members in the lawsuit against the US government.

With millions of dollars of financial assistance from Ex-Im and OPIC, ExxonMobil, in partnership with Chevron, is constructing an oil pipeline from Chad to Cameroon in Central Africa that will result in 445.9 million tonnes of Co2 emissions during its anticipated life. The oil extracted from Chad will be shipped from the coast of Cameroon to international markets including the US.

Ex-Im and OPIC did not comply with NEPA before deciding to finance this project.

Find out more about the planmtiffs and their case.