To the faculty director of the University of Oregon’s Environmental and Natural Resources Law Center, Mary Christina Wood, the best way to visualize the Earth’s current “climate crisis” is with an analogy.
It’s as if, she says, humanity jumped out of a plane at 30,000 feet with a parachute. The ripcord is dangling right there, easily within arm’s reach, but so far we’ve decided not to pull it. Meanwhile, the ground is rushing toward us at terminal velocity.
“We could open (the parachute), and if humanity opens it in time we’ll have a rough landing, but we’ll have a landing and we’ll have a planet to survive on,” she said. “But if you know anything about parachuting, if you get down within 500 feet of the ground, it’s over. … So at some point — and that point is 500 feet — nature’s laws kick in. And then no matter how close to the ground you open your parachute after that point, you can’t save yourself.”
Wood was speaking to a crowd of about 100 people who showed up at Southern Oregon University’s Rogue River Room Thursday night to hear Wood and other guest speakers, including two Ashland High School students, break down the crisis during a climate forum titled, “Nature’s Trust, Our Children’s Trust: A Climate Forum on Litigation to Save the Future.” The event was organized by SOU’s ECOS Sustainability Resource Center and the League of Women Voters Rogue Valley.
Wood, the author of “Nature’s Trust: Environmental Law for a New Ecological Age,” was joined by Jacob Lebel, a plaintiff in a landmark public trust case, as well as Ashland High students Isaac Bevers and Claire Pryor, both of whom served on the ad hoc committee which helped create Ashland’s recently approved Climate & Energy Action Plan.
Wood spoke first, followed by Lebel, an Oregon native (he grew up near Roseburg) who explained how his farming roots led to his involvement in the Juliana et. al. v. The United States et. al. case, a constitutional challenge based on public trust legal doctrines brought before the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon by 21 people. Bevers and Pryor then took the stage to discuss their efforts to make Ashland accountable to its Climate and Energy Action Plan. For the last 25 minutes of the two-hour forum, all four speakers took the stage and took questions from the audience.
Wood kicked off the event by explaining her parachute metaphor and the science behind it, issuing a dire warning: “If you’re not waking up in the middle of the night,” she said, “you may not know how urgent our position is right now.”
She then backed up that statement with a 45-minute speech employing slideshow photographs, comments from experts and climate data, before tackling the significance of Juliana et. al. vs. The United States et. al., which she called Oregon’s “huge ripcord in this crisis.”
“So I hope to tell you tonight and sort of guide you through how to use the law to help Oregon pull that ripcord,” she said.
In Wood’s view, the U.S. government has failed to uphold the Public Trust Doctrine by failing to protect natural public trust resources essential for a livable future. The U.S. government is obligated to preserve its essential natural resources for future generations much like a parent opening up a college savings account, she explained, and this “survival account for humanity” has been plundered.
Wood showed the crowd a cartoon to illustrate her point. It showed a fracking crew sinking a drill deep into the earth’s crust, wondering aloud why it could not drill through a layer labeled “Public Trust” — “We have hit something impenetrable.”
“The reason it’s impenetrable,” Wood explained, “is because it’s a doctrine of constitutional dimensions. Statutes can be changed by Congress, but Congress and state legislatures are subject to the Constitution. We the people hold the rights under the Constitution.”
Wood concluded her speech with a plea.
“As we leave this room, I always ask people to consider this moment, claim this moment collectively and Oregonians are doing that. And to recognize that we together, the living generation on Earth right now, hold not the power of life, but the trust of life.”
After Wood’s final remarks the audience gave her a standing ovation that lasted for about 30 seconds, after which Lebel spoke. Besides being a plaintiff, Lebel is a youth activist and reporter for climate change issues who has spoken about the issue at universities and colleges throughout the U.S.
Lebel offered his own slideshow to tell about some of his fellow plaintiffs and explain why he’s passionate about climate change, a focus he traces back to the day in 2015 he looked into sky while working his family’s 300-acre farm and noticed a giant smoke plume headed his way, residue from the Stouts Creek Fire.
Bevers and Pryor spoke for about 13 minutes, mostly about what they learned while working on the city’s Climate and Energy Action Plan.
“The major thing that we’ve learned,” Pryor said, “is just how critical youth voices are in this movement. The fact that it’s our future at stake gives us the right to be a part of this process and to fight for an Earth that we want to live in.
“After 17 years of being told I’m too young to understand, or too young to take real action or too young to make a difference, I have finally found an issue where my issue where my youth makes me important instead of ignorable. Youth have to fight for the world that we care about, true. But we also get to fight for the world that we care about, which is a pretty cool thing.”
Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Zavala99.