Judge Dismisses Lawsuit Seeking R.I. Climate Action
August 31, 2020
Last week Rhode Island Superior Court Judge Melissa Darigan dismissed a complaint filed by Nature’s Trust Rhode Island against the Department of Environmental Management (DEM). On behalf of 13 young Rhode Islanders and the Sisters of Mercy Ecology, the group filed suit after DEM had rejected an attempt that would have forced the state to address, systematically and meaningfully, the climate crisis and to take responsibility for its share of greenhouse-gas emissions.
Peter Nightingale, president of the Nature’s Trust Rhode Island board, said the judge’s recent ruling “makes it clear that the Rhode Island courts shirk their responsibility to protect the environment.”
The University of Rhode Island physics professor pointed to House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello’s statement at the beginning of this year that “there’s nothing Rhode Island can do to address climate change in a way that is real or impactful” as perhaps the most vivid example of political negligence.
In her decision, Darigan wrote that, “While this Court should have no reason to dispute the presented findings and issues, and, frankly, shares in Plaintiffs’ concerns for the environmental impacts of human activity, Plaintiffs have nonetheless failed to demonstrate a specific, tangible, and concrete injury suffered as a result of Defendants’ rejection of the proposed rules.”
She continued, “While climate change is concerning, in the case presently at bar, this Court cannot be used as a ‘forum [to determine] abstract questions,’ even if the questions Plaintiffs raise are grounded in science. As they presently stand, Plaintiffs’ concerns appear better directed to a forum different from this Court.”
Alex Duryea, one of the plaintiffs and a URI graduate student, minced no words in response to Darigan’s decision.
“I’m really frustrated with the fact that this court case keeps bouncing around,” Duryea said. “Nobody is taking responsibility for ensuring that DEM and the state of Rhode Island are protecting my right to a future. Do you think I want to be suing DEM? I have schoolwork to focus on, but I’m doing this because I feel like I have no other options at this point. If DEM just took action to protect future generations, what’s the worst that could happen? We’d have a safer, cleaner future.”
Martina Muller, a URI post-doctoral research fellow in natural resource sciences, agreed, saying government continues “pushing the responsibility to someone else.”
“Every day we waste pointing fingers and arguing about whose job it is to do something,” Muller said. “The time window of action is shrinking, and the scale of the response needed to avoid unthinkable climate catastrophe becomes that much bigger.”
Nightingale noted that nearly two years have gone by since the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” were needed to avoid catastrophic climate change.
“Judge Darigan’s ruling makes it painfully clear that Rhode Island government is years behind the scientific consensus,” he said. “Despite the clear evidence to the contrary, Judge Darigan’s reasoning explicitly denies that the young plaintiffs have suffered injury ‘in fact, economic or otherwise.’ The ruling is based on an unjust and outdated interpretation of the law. It flies in the face of common decency, environmental and climate justice, and the laws of nature. Most importantly, the ruling ignores the facts of the case.”
Stephen Follett, a URI undergraduate student and a plaintiff in the case, grew up in the coastal village of Snug Harbor in South Kingstown. He said his family and the community have suffered in more ways than economically from the impact of climate change on the fishing industry.
“The argument that we have not suffered as the result of the growing impact of climate change is completely unfounded,” Follett said. “The ignorance of this claim is clear in the sight of the ports in Galilee which remain full of idle fishing vessels, all docked for one reason: there are no traditional fish left. These species more traditional to local fisheries, namely cod, lobster, and tuna, have all fled north to the Gulf of Maine and the Bay of Fundy due to the warming of local waters. This has deprived many residents of their livelihood.”
Nature’s Trust Rhode Island is considering a legal response to the Superior Court decision, according to Nightingale.
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