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From the President: Fighting for the Ultimate Civil Right

Written by Trip Van Noppen. First published in the Earthjustice Quarterly Magazine, Summer 2013 issue.

Last month, the earth reached a grim climate milestone when scientists recorded a record 400 parts-per-million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere—a level not seen for hundreds of thousands of years, and which could drastically worsen human caused global warming.

On the same day as the announcement, more than 100 people from all walks of life and all 50 states plus Puerto Rico were gathering in Washington, D.C., to seek something that they shouldn’t have to ask for: the right to breathe clean air. These Clean Air Ambassadors marched on Capitol Hill and stalked the halls of Congress to urge representatives to enact greater protections from smog, coal ash, carbon and other dangerous air pollutants.

In the era of climate change, however, the right to breathe means that we must do more than rid the air of toxic emissions like mercury and arsenic. We also must cleanse the air of a pollutant whose prevalence can end our very existence. As Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr. of the Hip Hop Caucus pointed out during a speech to the 117 ambassadors, "If you lose this argument, people will die."

Many of the ambassadors—among them nurses, physicians, clergy, labor and tribal leaders and social justice advocates—know this all too well. The low-income and minority groups they reside among already feel the impacts of climate change. Just ask Phillip Bautista, a registered nurse and lifelong resident of the central San Joaquin Valley in California—an area with notoriously bad air quality. During a meeting with top-level EPA officials, he asked agency regulators to immediately finalize carbon and ozone standards so that children in his neighborhood could go outside and play without worrying that they will have an asthma attack.

Though President Obama’s administration has taken great strides in combating climate change, more must be done.

For years, in the face of climate inaction, Earthjustice has used the power of laws like the Clean Air Act to fight climate change. Our landmark court victory, which put in motion strict new limits on toxic air pollution from coal-fired power plants, drives the retirement of many dirty plants and a shift to cleaner power. We are also targeting oil and gas drilling and refining, which generate large amounts of carbon dioxide and methane—a potent climate polluter. And, our work on reducing black carbon, or soot, will decrease the rate of snow and ice melt in the Arctic.

Court work becomes even more powerful when citizens join the fight. The Clean Air Ambassadors have done their part. Now it’s time to do ours.

We, united, can drown out the cacophony of industry lobbyists. In the 20th century, hundreds of thousands of us marched on Washington to seek equality for all people. As Rev. Yearwood said, in the 21st century, we must come together again, this time to fight for the ultimate civil right—existence.

"Court work becomes even more powerful when citizens join the fight … We, united, can drown out the cacophony of industry lobbyists."

Trip Van Noppen
President, Earthjustice