This is a letter to the Delco Daily Times from Jennifer McIntyre, MCAF Pennsylvania Field Manager:
Unbeknownst to most Pennsylvanians, last September Ashley Funk, a 20-year-old environmental activist from Mount Pleasant, filed an unprecedented climate change petition to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection with the assistance of the Widener Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic and the Oregon-based nonprofit, Our Children’s Trust. Pursuant to the best available science, the petition is asking the DEP to promulgate rules to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 6 percent annually in order to minimize the adverse impacts of climate change.
Ashley is now waiting for the DEP to issue a highly anticipated report on that petition, which will explain whether the DEP believes that rulemaking proceedings should move forward.
The legal basis for Ms. Funk’s petition lies in the public trust doctrine, an ancient legal tenet that holds governments responsible for protecting certain natural resources for the benefit of all citizens, including future generations. Importantly, Pennsylvania has enshrined this public trust obligation in Article I, Section 27, of its Constitution, the Environmental Rights Amendment. Here, the doctrine is appropriately applied to the atmosphere — a natural resource we cannot live without. This is an evolved interpretation of the public trust doctrine. In the United States, the doctrine was primarily invoked in cases involving navigable waters and there are some who argue that the principle should be limited to cases involving waterways. However, in Robinson Township et al. v. Commonwealth et al. a recent decision overturning aspects of the fracking law, Act 13, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court unambiguously described air as a public trust asset. In fact, the application of the public trust doctrine to the air and atmosphere is the embodiment of our legal system’s purpose to evolve and remain relevant in a constantly changing, modernizing world.
According to the American Lung Association, Philadelphia County gets an F grade for ground level ozone pollution (20th in dirtiest cities ranking), and a D grade for particle pollution (11th in dirtiest cities ranking). The effects of these statistics are costly. Pennsylvania pays $9.4 billion in pollution-related health care costs each year. Nearly 15 percent of Pennsylvania children have symptoms of asthma. Additionally, a projection estimates that climate change induced ozone increases in Pennsylvania could result in about 133,000 additional cases of serious respiratory illnesses in 2020. Pennsylvanians are beginning to understand that the effects of air pollution and climate change are far-reaching and infiltrate every aspect of life. From health impacts, to public safety, to national security, to food security, our wellbeing is threatened by a force we can control. And we must.
It is our right as Pennsylvanians to demand that our elected and appointed public officials uphold their constitutional duty to protect the natural resources we share as beneficiaries of Pennsylvania’s public trust assets. We should stand with Ashley Funk and other youths to demand our public trust resources are protected first and foremost ahead of industry profits. Government exists to protect these natural resources, not to sell them off to the highest bidder. Based on the findings in the DEP’s forthcoming report, Pennsylvanians will know whether the Department of Environmental Protection has chosen to protect our right to a stable climate, or big business.