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Environment

Dec 21, 2018

Youth v. USA: Carbon Capitalism on Trial

As a nation's leaders shrink from imminent global catastrophe, its youth rise to the challenge. In the US, a lawsuit against the federal government could galvanize climate change policy.

WRITTEN BY

Kela Fetters

Aji Piper was just 15 years old when he and 20 other adolescents sued the federal government. Their contention: due to decades of misconduct, the country’s highest bureaucracy is responsible for deleterious climate change. Three years later, their lawsuit, Juliana vs. USA, awaits a trial date. As citizens poised to inherit a volatile climate and its incumbent challenges, the youth plaintiffs have turned to the courts as the last bulwark against an administration devoted to business-as-usual. As children and young adults, Piper and the other prosecutors have the activist mentality and tech-savvy to promote their case online and in the streets. “We are agency in action; we have to win in the court of law and the court of public opinion,” Piper says.

Youth rally for climate justice

They’ve already got climate science on their side. Consensus from this month’s UN “Conference of the Parties” (COP) climate summit is that urgent remedial action is required of world leaders to address anthropogenic climate change. At the conference, heavyweight investors warned of $23 trillion annual economic losses should global leaders fail to slash carbon emissions and phase out coal burning. October’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report called for a 45% reduction in global carbon dioxide emission to avoid irrevocable climate-related dangers including sea level rise, mass crop loss, and extreme weather events. Forecasts predict a global temperature increase of 3°C since pre-industrial numbers by the end of the century—well above the 1.5°C target most experts champion. Climate-related hazards unfold on a visceral level as anomalous wildfire events, coastal inundations, and exacerbated respiratory ailments such as asthma. The sirens of the climate change newsroom have reached fever pitch, but they’ve fallen on deaf ears at the federal level.

Oil well at sunrise. Image via Pixabay.

Federal subsidy of the fossil fuel industry has resulted in human suffering due to climate change, and they are liable for the damage.

The prosecutors of Juliana vs. USA first brought their qualms to the judicial realm under the Obama administration in 2015. Their bid for trial puttered through a series of bureaucratic postponements that bled into the 2016 presidential election. Trump’s administration poses an additional hurdle for the lawsuit. The president, an outspoken climate change denier, has called global warming “a total, and very expensive hoax”, and has pursued pro-fossil-fuel policy since taking office. Just last week, his administration released plans to retract protection of the greater sage grouse on some nine million acres of public lands in the West to pursue oil and gas drilling. According to policy experts, the action would open up more land to drilling than any previous move the administration has made.

Youth rally for climate justice

Ironically, the defendants won’t be denying the climate science, which Juliana lawyer Philip Gregory knows is airtight. Instead, they will obfuscate the link between climate change and bodily harms and contest federal responsibility for rising carbon emissions. But Gregory says that the government has known since the 1950s that burning fossil fuels could affect the climate. “They put a foot on the accelerator and ramped up fossil fuel extraction through federal leasing and opening up the Gulf and the Arctic for drilling, despite knowledge that carbon dioxide emissions could have devastating negative health effects,” he informs. According to Gregory, the global crises is the result of more than political paralysis; affirmative government action fueled the catastrophe.

Youth rally for climate justice

The case raises some imposing questions. How will federal policies address the uncertain boundaries of climate change? What responsibility does a government bear to its citizens with respect to the climate? Gregory and the prosecutors have an answer. “The government does not have a duty to directly protect anyone; however, if it creates a danger or is a substantial factor in creating the danger, then it is obligated to protect citizens from harm,” Gregory explains. He analogizes fossil fuel to foster care. “A classic example would be the state-run foster care system. If they have reason to suspect that a licensed foster-care provider is not helping children but continue to license that provider, they would be liable for the suffering of children under the care of the negligent provider.” Essentially, federal subsidy of the fossil fuel industry has resulted in human suffering due to climate change, and they are liable for the damage.

Piper claims that Washington’s culpability is incontrovertible because “livable climate is essential to a free and ordered society.” He wants to test the clout of the public trust doctrine, which holds that the government is responsible for good stewardship of critical natural resources. The plaintiffs reason that healthy climate, a natural resource comparable to clean air or safe drinking water, is entitled to legal protection. But the potency of the public trust doctrine is already under siege; on Tuesday the EPA released proposed changes to the Clean Water Act that would truncate federal protection of vast tracts of seasonal wetlands and waterways. The plan is the latest effort by the Trump administration to rescind “regulatory overreaching” Obama-era environmental policy they claim stifles development. As the proposal demonstrates, even an established protection like the Clean Water Act is subject to the agenda of the sitting government. Federal curbing by the GOP can limit the efficacy of a “public trust” designation.

Youth rally for climate justice

It’s unclear whether victory in court will impact global carbon emissions in the critical time-frame prescribed by the IPCC report.

Should Juliana triumph in court, the US government would be bound by law to develop a climate recovery plan. According to Piper, the plan’s content is outside the jurisdiction of the courts but will necessitate unprecedented commitment to reforestation and other carbon sequestration efforts, renewable energy subsidies, and an aggressive dismantling of fossil-fuel infrastructure. That’s a tall order of a government whose President said in October: “I don’t know that it’s [climate change] manmade…I don’t want to give trillions and trillions of dollars. I don’t want to lose millions and millions of jobs. I don’t want to be put at a disadvantage.” An adequate climate plan would entail a complete overhaul of US carbon capitalism, a radical reconfiguration that the present administration will resist with every political roadblock at their disposal. Stall tactics might include an appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court, or even to the Supreme Court and its conservative-leaning bench. Due to the ambiguity of a “climate recovery plan” and the legislatorial challenges of a polarized government, it’s unclear whether victory in court will impact global carbon emissions in the critical time-frame prescribed by the IPCC report. But every month counts on a destabilizing planet, and the lawsuit’s prompt success could mean the difference between 1.5°C of warming and 3°C. “Even if we do pass a ‘tipping point’, I won’t stop being an activist,” Piper concluded. “Even helping one community or one family is making a positive impact, and that’s enough for me.”

Youth rally for climate justice. Photos provided by Marlow Baines.

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Travel

Jan 15, 2019

Not Your Father’s Ski Trip: Jackson Hole, WY

Inspired by images of her dad’s Jackson Hole college ski trip, the author heads north to tour the Tetons and tack a few pictures to the family scrapbook.

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WRITTEN BY

Kela Fetters

The author’s father launching a cliff at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort cerca 1987

This film shot of my father going big on a set of ridiculously thin, twin-tipped K2s cerca 1987 instilled in me a deep gratitude for today’s fat freeride sticks and a sense of duty to keep the family’s cliff-hucking legacy alive. Scrapbook open on his lap, my dad extolled the terrain of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, which he visited “back in the good ol’ days” at Colorado State University. He described a steep wonderland besotted with cliffs that beg for reckoning. After the past several seasons of wimpy Colorado snow totals whilst Jackson churned out foot-deep day after foot-deep day, I was enthused by the resort’s inclusion on my 2018-2019 Ikon Pass. With my own graduation looming in May, I figured the time was right for some Teton escapades. Like father, like daughter.

Car outfitted with a socioeconomically oxymoronic stash of ramen and expensive ski gear, I punched seven hours northward and arrived the night after a vicious storm cycle spat 20 inches of fresh flakes onto the mountains. The next day popped bluebird and my posse navigated the foreign slopes via trial, error, and the inexhaustible freneticism of college kids on vacation. We nabbed fresh tracks on Headwall and Casper Bowl, giggled down pillows on the Crags, and pinballed around the Hobacks. A ride up in the iconic Jackson Hole tram revealed a closed Corbet’s Couloir, ostensibly requiring another wave of coverage before its seasonal unveiling. I was forced to settle for a waffle at Corbet’s Cabin instead of matching my dad’s drop into the legendary chute. With the blood of my father and powder-fueled adrenaline surging through my veins, I willed myself over the most tantalizing cliffs on offer in Rendezvous Bowl.

The iconic Jackson Hole Mountain Resort tram, cerca 1987
Corbet’s Couloir: a timeless classic
Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, cerca 1987

In the words of the great Cyndi Lauper: Oh daddy dear, you know you’re still number one, but girls, they wanna have fun.

It’s part and parcel of parenthood to agitate over the safety and well-being of one’s children. I’ve subsumed backcountry skiing into my hobbiesnew territory for this family’s lineage. On my nascent out-of-bounds outings, my father, a textbook concerned parent, grumbled about avalanches, terrain traps, and my insurmountable naïvity. Several seasons of diligent education, one avy bag, and countless snow pits later, I’ve earned his reluctant acceptance, if not enthusiasm, for my backcountry pursuits.  In the words of the great Cyndi Lauper: Oh daddy dear, you know you’re still number one, but girls, they wanna have fun.

Finding deep snow on Headwall
Pillows aplenty on the Crags

After two days of charging in-bounds, my psyche longed for the solitude of the skintrack. Teton Pass, Grand Teton National Park, and the resort sidecountry make the area a veritable playground for backcountry enthusiasts. It’s a family affair in Jackson; a fraternal ethos is evident in the fact that 97% of the nearly 4 million acres of Teton County are federally owned or state managed. Locals are quick to mark their territory on Teton Pass with the exclamatory hieroglyphs of first tracks, but the terrain is ample enough to find virgin snow. After giving the snowpack several days to stabilize post-squall, we found wiggle room on north-facing aspects along the Mail Cabin Creek drainage. Our final line of Day 1 was the Do-Its, a bifurcated powder track that converges and meanders twelve hundred feet back down to the road. At the hill’s zenith, minute snowflakes collapsed into liquid and rolled from our hardshells. We stood atop a wind-plumped knoll and observed the gnarl of peaks, foregrounded by Mount Taylor and Mount Glory, tumbling into a horizon of exposed rock and liquescent white. The unperturbed flank below screamed for human contact. I was all too happy to oblige the siren’s call with a quick tuck into the void. My skis made that sanctified first contact with the snow below. A crescendo of polestrokes invoked a maelstrom of flakes to drown the world in white. Hips squiggling, mind locked to the minutia, dopamine and adrenaline flooding the nervous system, and a raven on high with a vantage point a ski cinematographer would kill for. Then I burned through the mountain’s vertical; the dance with gravity ended in an expository wave of white smoke. I looked back and the sublime evidence was a single, undulating track across the otherwise unblemished face.

Cloud inversion over the Teton Valley from the top of Mt. Glory
Top of Mt. Glory

My final day in Jackson came courtesy of Exum Mountain Guides, an 80-year-old Teton-based guiding service that offers instruction and adventure on rope and skis in North America, the Alps, Andes, and Himalayas. The service traces their lineage to local legends of the 1930s like Glenn Exum, Paul Petzoldt, and Barry Corbet. They’re the granddaddy of Jackson guiding services and the resident experts on Grand Teton National Park. Despite the government shut-down and limited National Park operations, dedicated employees were plowing the entrance road and ensuring access to some of the Tetons best snow staches. My guide for the day was Brendan O’neill, who informed me of the birth of his daughter Jessie three weeks prior as we puttered to the Taggart Lake Trailhead.

If newborn Jessie was taxing this new dad’s sleep and energy reserves, his athletic, assiduous pace on the skintrack suggested otherwise. I asked Brendan about fatherhood, hoping to glean some insight into my own dad’s relationship with raising a daughter. He hopes to have Jessie on skis the second she can walk; he would be thrilled if she took to alpine or nordic racing, but amenable if she chose not to compete; he is excited to show her the world beyond the boundaries of a ski resort. As we muscled up towards Amphitheater Lake, I mused that twenty years from now, Jessie might look at pictures of her dad guiding in far-flung locales and make plans to fill and transcend those footsteps. I wonder if Brendan knows how much she will look up to him and his accomplishments.

Exum Guide and new father Brendan O’neill

  Even the evergreens projected patriarchy: the tallest trees nucleated their sapling broods with paternal solemnity, each molecule of powder glistening in the shaggy green branches. We broke through the forest onto snow-covered Amphitheater Lake, a cirque bounded by the bald, mangled granite of Teewinot to the north and Disappointment Peak to the west. On a snack pitstop, we watched another party of skiers lay down tracks in Spoon Couloir, a steep, enticing chute on Disappointment Peak’s lower haunch. Brendan seemed to sense my desire to get after a big alpine line and suggested we bootpack the Spoon must have been his newly acquired parental mind-reading superpower. After crossing the lake, we cut a haphazard zig-zag to the top of the Spoon’s apron and transitioned to the bootpack. 500 feet of vertical boot-punching propelled us up the gut and bookended the nearly 5,000 feet of vertical notched from trailhead to objective. From our humble perch on Disappointment’s flank, an electric blue sky slumbered atop a soupy mass of clouds, hallmark of a Teton Valley temperature inversion. Backgrounded by this topsy-turvy atmosphere, I skied down the hard-packed snow of the spoon’s handle into its apron of softer powder.

The Spoon Couloir visible on looker’s left of lower Disappointment Peak (center)
Bootpacking up the Spoon

Grand Teton, senior pinnacle of its range, poised with patriarchal authority over Middle Teton, Mt. Owen, and all the rest

To redeem the remainder of our hard-earned vertical, Brendan led us through a mellow glade percolated with unrumpled pillows aplenty. Matching his cuts through the pines was reminiscent of a childhood spent following my dad around the resort as I learned to trust my edges and my body. As I ripped skins back in the parking lot, giddy with alpine energy, I turned to gaze up at the Grand Teton, senior pinnacle of its range, poised with patriarchal authority over Middle Teton, Mt. Owen, and all the rest. I owe this unforgettable trip to Jackson Hole to my father for choosing to raise and inspire (and generously fund) a skier.

Thanks to Exum Mountain Guides for making this trip possible.

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