Ed. note: This post has been reposted from its original publication with permission of the author.
When I arrived at the urban homestead Mary Christina Wood shares with her family in Eugene, Oregon, she had just pulled homemade bread from the oven. I had come to interview her about a bold legal campaign to prevent climate catastrophe. We sat at her kitchen table, near shelves lined with jars of food she had canned, and talked and drank tea made with peppermint from her garden.
An environmental-law professor at the University of Oregon, Wood is the author of the 2013 book Nature’s Trust: Environmental Law for a New Ecological Age, in which she argues that the resources necessary for human survival — including the atmosphere — are part of a trust that the government must safeguard on behalf of current and future generations. Since politicians are failing to do that, she created a road map for citizens to take the government to court and demand a science-based, legally enforceable plan to stabilize the climate.
Wood isn’t a litigator herself, but suits or petitions have been filed in all fifty states using her concept of an “atmospheric trust.” The campaigns are spearheaded by Our Children’s Trust, a nonprofit organization founded by environmental lawyer Julia Olson. In the legal actions, children are holding their governments legally accountable for violating their right to a livable planet. Some of the cases have been dismissed, but one, Juliana v. United States, achieved a major breakthrough two days after Donald Trump’s 2016 election, when U.S. district judge Ann Aiken affirmed that “a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society.” The government, Judge Aiken ruled, would stand trial for destroying the climate. (The case is still pending as we go to press.)
Wood is a fourth-generation Oregonian with many ancestors who fought for social and environmental justice. Born in 1962, she grew up beside the Columbia River, on land her great-grandparents had cultivated as a prune orchard. She spent countless hours as a child exploring the shoreline, watching chum salmon spawn in the creek in autumn, and foraging for berries in summer. Her childhood in that place led her to view the functioning natural world as a priceless inheritance from our ancestors. It’s a notion her great-grandfather, poet and civic leader C.E.S. Wood, would recognize. He once composed a poem in which he figuratively bequeathed Oregon’s Metolius River to his grandchildren, including Wood’s father. Nearly a century later, when the same river was threatened by development, a group of children who testified in its defense read the poem to a state legislative committee. When the bill they were supporting failed, some children left the chamber in tears. Wood told them, “Never give up.” They continued to lobby the legislature, and, a few weeks later, a bill protecting the river passed by one vote.
Wood is founding director of the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Center at the University of Oregon and the recipient of the 2015 David Brower Lifetime Achievement Award. In addition to her atmospheric-trust scholarship, she advocates for “relocalization” — making changes in our personal lives to minimize our impact on the climate. For their part, she and her family grow much of their own food in their urban yard, use bikes as a main form of transportation, and try to avoid airline travel and other activities with large carbon footprints.
I ended up interviewing Wood several times. At our most recent meeting, her tone was more urgent than ever. The UN’s climate panel had just released what she called a “bombshell report” calling for a 45 percent carbon-emissions reduction from 2010 levels by 2030 to avoid all-out disaster. The Juliana case — the only current legal pathway for achieving that kind of reduction — had been delayed just days before its scheduled trial. The Trump administration was doing everything it could to stall the legal process. The litigation, she said, is in a race against climate tipping points.
DeMocker: How did the idea of caring for future generations become a central concern in your life?
Wood: My father instilled in me a sense of place that was closely intertwined with family legacy. He talked about his grandfather taking his horse-drawn cart loaded with prunes to the prune dryer and showed me the plum trees my grandmother picked fruit from, and the giant cedar tree my grandparents got engaged under. He talked about our ancestors as if they were still a part of our lives, so when I picked plums, I’d think of my grandmother picking from the same tree when she was young. He also spoke of their efforts to protect Northwest rivers and forests. What flowed through these conversations was a sense of gratitude toward these ancestors who had been responsible for protecting this place for the great-grandchildren they’d never know.
In the 1980s the forests, wetlands, and farmlands near our house — that natural world we knew and cherished — were “developed” into an ugly sprawl of fast-food joints, big-box stores, and ostentatious McMansions. It broke my heart. I look at the land as being part of a sacred covenant with our children and the coming generations. If we live for ourselves only, our lives are bereft of true legacy. But when we live in the presence of our ancestors, we also live for our descendants. To feel concern for the future is to bring a piece of eternity into the present and let it guide us. The climate crisis is sorting those who feel a duty to future generations from those who live for themselves.
DeMocker: What inspired you to search for a legal solution to the climate crisis?
Wood: I was pregnant with my third son and on sabbatical when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005. A colleague there wrote about a dead body floating by his house, and the image haunted me enough that I looked deeper into the forces behind Katrina. I had taught environmental law for years, but until then I had never focused on climate science and greenhouse-gas pollution. I was under the impression, as many still were, that the impacts of global warming were in the far-distant future — too far to really contemplate. I picked up an article by Dr. James Hansen, then head of NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies — probably the most prestigious climate scientist on the planet — and it shocked me. He warned of the near-term potential to set off feedback loops in nature: situations in which increased temperatures will trigger further warming. Once they kick in, average temperatures will keep pushing higher and higher until most of this planet won’t be habitable to humans just decades from now. We are on the verge of tipping points that would put these processes into irreversible motion.
DeMocker: How do these feedback loops work?
Wood: Here’s one example: Trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, helping to regulate the earth’s temperature. Planetary heating dries out forests and fuels wildfires. When trees burn, they not only cease absorbing carbon dioxide, but they release the carbon they’ve stored. The wildfires that raged out of control in California in 2018 released as much carbon dioxide as the energy used to provide the state’s electricity for a year.
Another feedback loop lies in the permafrost — soil that remains frozen year-round in polar regions and contains vast stores of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane. When it thaws, those gases are released. The permafrost has already started to thaw. If it really gets going, it will create what some scientists describe as an atmospheric tsunami.
Katrina was, for me, the Pearl Harbor of global warming. It woke many Americans up and demonstrated that climate disruption poses a clear and present danger today, not a hundred or a thousand years from now, as the public had been led to believe. It delivers conditions lethal to humanity. Once I realized that this is a matter of survival for my children in their life spans — and for all children on earth — I focused deeply on the climate problem from the legal angle.
DeMocker: What did you find?
Wood: System failure everywhere. I saw our government’s legislative and executive branches, for example, driving fossil-fuel energy dependence during the George W. Bush administration, despite dire climate warnings delivered to top officials. President Obama came into office vowing to end the tyranny of Big Oil. He pursued renewable energy sources like wind and solar, but he also opened up new oil fields and pushed for pipelines and offshore drilling. We have to phase out fossil fuels, period. You cannot pursue oil and lower carbon-dioxide emissions at the same time.
Toward the end of Obama’s term, it was as if a light went on for him, and he started blocking fossil-fuel projects and closing off large areas to drilling. Then President Trump came in and opened them all back up — except off the coast of Florida, where he has his Mar-a-Lago resort. President Obama also committed the United States to the Paris Agreement on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, but Trump announced a complete American withdrawal from the agreement.
DeMocker: How was the third branch of government — the judicial — approaching the climate problem?
Wood: Run-of-the-mill environmental cases had not been keeping up with the rapidly growing climate threat. The courts can only engage in cases that come before them, and the average case tends to be very narrow, usually challenging individual permits, such as those allowing one coal-fired plant to spew pollution. This type of litigation does not address the broad, system-wide pollution crisis that we face today.
DeMocker: The first Earth Day in 1970 gave rise to many sweeping laws to protect soil, air, and water. Why do we now confront widespread ecological collapse and the real possibility of our own near-term extinction?
Wood: The major environmental laws that were passed in the sixties and seventies, like the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Air Act, were not geared toward the sort of system change we need now. Listing polar bears as an endangered species is not going to solve the climate crisis. We need to transform how we produce energy, and no law is forcing that to happen.
But the public largely assumes the environmental laws have worked, because eagles aren’t dying from DDT anymore, and rivers aren’t catching fire, and lead is gone from gasoline. In actuality the health of the environment has declined measurably in the forty years since those laws were passed. People may not be throwing garbage into rivers anymore, but industries put toxins in the water that the public doesn’t know about. Environmental damage has moved into a new realm, where it’s largely invisible but threatens entire ecosystems. Look at our landscape: ravaged forests, blown-off mountaintops, birds and fish vanishing, and toxic substances so persistent that even children born generations from now will have them in their bloodstreams. We’ve seen accelerating rates of deforestation, ocean acidification, water pollution, groundwater depletion, marine dead zones, and species population collapse. Floods and wildfires exacerbated by the climate crisis cause massive destruction. Just last November eighty-six people died in the infernos that incinerated Paradise, California. For families living there, one day life was comfortable, and the next, they were taking refuge — if they got out alive.
DeMocker: Why don’t the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] and the U.S. Forest Service enforce existing laws?
Wood: A rot has been growing inside our agencies nearly since their inception. We have more environmental agencies than any other country — the EPA, the Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service, and many others — but these agencies are under political siege. They are supposed to be neutral, objective bodies, but from the get-go, industry has relentlessly pressured them to ease regulations and issue permits. The Army Corps of Engineers, for example, approves about 99 percent of wetland-destruction permits. Permit-denial rates should increase as resources grow scarcer, but we just haven’t seen that in most agencies. Many have stopped serving the public and simply legalize more damage. At best, environmental law is providing little more than hospice care for a dying planet.
When the federal agencies that control the natural wealth of this nation operate without meaningful restraint, they can become tyrannical, wrecking communities by allowing toxic-waste sites, polluted rivers, mountaintop removal, and fracking. Children in Flint, Michigan, have brain damage because of lead in the water. The Safe Drinking Water Act was designed to prevent crises like that, but the EPA and state officials failed to adequately enforce it under Obama, and we can expect the Trump administration to further undermine it and other laws we have on the books.
DeMocker: The communities most affected are often low income or populated mostly by minorities, as Flint is.
Wood: Flint has drawn the public eye, but environmental racism is pervasive across the country. Cancer Alley is another example: the people who live along the Mississippi River corridor in the shadow of chemical-manufacturing plants suffer soaring rates of cancer. Communities subject to toxic oppression are often not equipped to fight polluting industries. They don’t have the resources or the political weight to fight government agencies that have turned environmental laws into a system of granting permits to pollute.
The default position for all environmental agencies should be to protect the environment, not to issue permits. Agencies should take the precautionary approach: where there’s scientific uncertainty, the burden should be on the industry to prove its practice is safe rather than on the public to prove otherwise.
DeMocker: In 1971 economist George J. Stigler coined the term “regulatory capture,” for when regulators become captives of industries and advance industry interests rather than protecting the public. How does this happen?
Wood: Slowly, over years and years. It’s like a cancer that isn’t detected until it has spread everywhere. Industry influence creates a climate in which agency staffers feel they can’t deny permits because they will lose their jobs.
Industry heads know how to work the system. They may call the governor, state legislators, or congresspeople to enlist them in pressuring the agency to issue the permit. Often a senator will make an “informational” call to the Army Corps of Engineers or another agency, to apply political pressure. Many dedicated employees in agencies are trying to fulfill their duties, but they’re constrained by a system that responds mostly to powerful corporations. Whistle-blowers experience retribution when they make decisions that don’t favor industry. And it is naive to believe this is just a problem under Republican administrations. The stories that came out of the Obama administration were appalling, too.
DeMocker: President Trump doesn’t make any attempt to hide the revolving door between industry and government.
Wood: It’s not a revolving door; it’s a free-for-all. The henhouse is open to the fox with a COME ON IN! sign. Trump’s appointed agency heads are closely allied with the oil and gas and coal industries. Andrew Wheeler, the acting EPA director, has strong ties to the coal industry. Trump’s former secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, was the CEO of Exxon-Mobil. Jeffrey Bossert Clark, a former BP defense lawyer, is now head of the Department of Justice’s environmental-defense division. All of this sends a clear message that these agencies aren’t representing the American public — they are carrying out the special interests of big corporations.
Over the years industry has tried to influence the science used to make regulatory decisions. An industry might hire scientists to produce biased studies and confuse the public, or it might persecute principled scientists who are producing studies that threaten the industry’s profits.
DeMocker: The section of your book describing the George W. Bush administration’s internal climate policy reads like a crime novel. How did Bush stave off regulation of carbon pollution for eight years?
Wood: Bush-administration officials decided if they could just keep uncertainty afloat through disinformation campaigns, the public would be too confused to demand regulation. Philip Cooney, chief of staff of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, altered and toned down climate studies. He had been a lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute [API] for fifteen years. From his new desk, Cooney carried out the same disinformation campaign he’d helped create at the API, altering reports to de-emphasize the threat of global warming and the human role in causing it, and exaggerating scientific uncertainty to the media.
DeMocker: Have the disinformation campaigns changed under Trump?
Wood: Trump does not seem to rely on disinformation, because his monarchical style is to dismiss environmental policy altogether. He removed climate information from government websites. The Trump administration wants to eradicate thousands of records from the Department of the Interior. These actions strip away Americans’ ability to monitor their own government or accurately assess the climate threat. A tool of tyranny is to eliminate information, because information is power.
DeMocker: Don’t citizens have a voice in protecting our resources through public hearings about new oil pipelines and drilling permits?
Wood: You can find many opportunities for public involvement, but the truth is the average citizen does not have the resources to get deeply involved. When people are working full-time, or even two jobs, struggling to get by, they can’t be expected to read thousand-page environmental-impact statements and attend public hearings. And environmental law has become overwhelmingly complex.
As a citizen you have to go back again and again and again to make your voice heard. Here in Eugene, children testified on the city’s proposed Climate Recovery Ordinance on at least eight occasions. Legislators and public officials tell themselves that if the public doesn’t show up, it means nobody cares, but that assumes people have more capacity to engage in these cumbersome and protracted processes than they really do.
Despite the obstacles, citizens are getting mad and rising up. Standing Rock was a moment when many Americans could not help but acknowledge the travesty of environmental law. The Army Corps of Engineers was set to give final approval for the Dakota Access Pipeline before indigenous water protectors and activists intervened. Even military veterans traveled to North Dakota en masse to protest. It was only because of public outcry that the Obama administration finally decided against the pipeline. But then that was overruled by Trump.
DeMocker: You focus on the public trust in your work. What is it?
Wood: It’s the oldest and most fundamental principle in environmental law, because it requires government to protect our natural resources over the long term. A “trust” occurs when wealth is managed by one person for the benefit of another, and the “public trust” means that our government must manage the natural wealth for the people. The people own the natural resources, and the government is entrusted with protecting those resources for future generations.
DeMocker: The public trust has long been applied to waterways and wildlife management. You pioneered the legal argument that the climate system should be protected by it, too.
Wood: The idea of the air as a public trust was offered by law professor Gerald Torres. I took the concepts from the leading public-trust cases and wove them together, applying them to the climate system. For example, one court might apply the public trust to groundwater, another to wildlife, yet both use the same reasoning. I extended that reasoning to argue that the public trust should apply to nature as a whole, including the atmosphere.
DeMocker: Are the children suing the government through atmospheric-trust litigation claiming that their right to “life, liberty, and property” is being violated?
Wood: Yes, because climate chaos, as it hits us with increasing force over the coming decades, will threaten all of those. The very survival of humanity now depends on our government upholding the public trust that’s embedded in the social contract citizens have with their governments. Our survival has never been at stake the way it is now with climate disruption.
DeMocker: When people sue, they demand a “remedy” — a fix. How did you decide what would fix the problem of climate destruction?
Wood: The amount of carbon reduction we need on an annual basis to restore the climate system has to be quantified somehow; otherwise what mandate do you enforce? I asked Dr. James Hansen for guidance on this. It felt as if I were calling the planet’s doctor to get a prescription. He convened a team of the world’s top climate experts, and eleven months later he completed what is essentially a prescription for the planet.
DeMocker: What does it say?
Wood: That to avert catastrophe we have to return the level of carbon in the atmosphere to below 350 parts per million. That’s the uppermost safe limit. This would require three things: massive reforestation; changes to agriculture; and — the big one — cutting our carbon emissions as rapidly as we possibly can until we achieve full decarbonization. The rate of decarbonization required will increase the longer we wait. The good news is that, though it’s difficult, a full energy transition is achievable, and there are pathways formulated to guide our leaders. But these are being ignored, and the Trump administration is instead driving the emissions curve up by opening public areas to drilling. If we wait beyond 2020 to push down the emissions curve, we may blow past tipping points. That’s when our window of opportunity slams shut, and we’re essentially trapped inside the heating greenhouse we’ve created.
DeMocker: How does the report released in October 2018 by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change factor into this?
Wood: The breakthrough in that report is that the UN finally recognized we cannot exceed a 1.5 degree Celsius increase in global temperatures without catastrophe. [The UN figure is for an increase above nineteenth-century levels. We have already reached an increase of approximately 1 degree Celsius. — Ed.] Prior to that, the UN had set a 2 degree goal, which Dr. Hansen said would be catastrophic. The panel also set a near-term imperative of a 45 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030. And the UN chief declared in September that the world must begin lowering emissions decisively by 2020. So there’s not just an end deadline; there’s a starting deadline. We must begin immediately. This will take an effort that surpasses even the U.S. war effort in the 1940s, and it must be every bit as urgent. We need to accomplish this global rescue with all deliberate speed.
DeMocker: What do you make of Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement?
Wood: When Trump announced our withdrawal, many Americans were so outraged that within days a formidable coalition came together. Now we have state governors and mayors across the country declaring their intent to carry out the goals of the Paris Agreement. So President Trump just fueled grassroots climate activism in a way President Obama never did. [Laughs.]
But I don’t put as much stock in the Paris Agreement as many people do. We think that some sort of international agreement will magically solve the climate crisis. That’s simply not true. It’s not as if there is some global police force making sure countries carry out their commitments. Enforcement is the Achilles’ heel of international law. Ultimately climate recovery depends on grassroots action and domestic enforcement within each country.
Again, the greatest accomplishment of the Paris Agreement was to acknowledge 1.5 degrees Celsius as the highest safe temperature increase. At a 2 degree increase many island nations would drown from sea-level rise, and many others would expire from drought. For the world to coalesce around a 1.5 degree goal gives it a legitimacy that the courts can then enforce.
DeMocker: Given that we have just a few years to make sweeping changes worldwide, and given the notoriously slow pace of the legal system, can lawsuits really prod governments to act in time?
Wood: There is no silver bullet and no certainty. We have to recognize that we are in a disastrous position. It’s as if humanity has jumped out of an airplane: You don’t waste time asking if the parachute will work. You just find the rip cord.
Judges don’t have to move slowly. They tend to, because there is usually not this sort of mind-blowing urgency, but they can offer the swiftest relief possible. They can issue broad, targeted injunctions that require the other branches of government to get to work. In the end nature’s laws are the laws we must comply with, and there’s no negotiating with nature. Trump seems to have no sense of this, and that’s a dangerous level of ignorance. If you don’t understand the laws of nature, or you do but defy them, you lead the people toward disaster. It’s as if the government is making us walk the plank to our own doom with our children in hand.
DeMocker: And yet, if you look at the Founders’ original writings, they were constantly thinking about future generations.
Wood: The preamble to the Constitution expresses a concern for “posterity,” meaning our descendants. The concept of public ownership — the idea that no one person can own resources vital to all — is deeply rooted in human society, going back to the Roman Institutes of Justinian in 535 AD, and long before that to indigenous systems of governance. From the earliest days of this nation, courts have said that natural resources are held in trust by the government for the people, and this principle has been affirmed multiple times by state courts and the U.S. Supreme Court. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned that state’s fracking law in 2013 based on the doctrine of the public trust.
DeMocker: How do you respond to those who say the climate crisis should be addressed by legislators, not judges?
Wood: Of course it’s the legislators’ job to respond to a crisis that threatens our survival, but legislators have not done their job for decades, even though they know how perilous our situation is. This catastrophe is a direct result of fossil-fuel corporations’ influence over the legislative and executive branches of government.
Courts are a last resort, but a resort nonetheless. As the third branch of government, they are a key part of our democracy. The judicial branch has the singular ability to order action before it’s too late. The youth plaintiffs in the climate cases are seeking redress in the courts because judges protect fundamental rights and are good at setting deadlines. They do it all the time.
The goal of atmospheric-trust litigation is for a court first to declare that the government has a duty to protect our atmosphere as a public trust, and then to force the government to create a science-based plan to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions and restore the balance and functionality of our climate system. Many times in history the courts have forced the government to rectify violations of fundamental rights: in civil-rights cases, prisoners’-rights cases, Indian-treaty cases, educational-funding cases, and land-use cases, to name a few.
DeMocker: But the Trump administration is quickly filling federal judgeships with young, right-wing judges.
Wood: Trump is filling positions with people who seem inclined to carry out his agenda rather than weigh the evidence before them and come to a reasoned conclusion. When a president uses the judicial-appointment power to boost industry profits, we have a big problem on our hands.
Stacking the courts to promote a private agenda enables the tyrannical impulses of the executive branch. It’s hard to figure out a solution to that. The best we can do is use all three branches of government, at all three levels — local, state, and federal — against the forces that want to consolidate power into a monarchical president.
DeMocker: Since Trump’s appointment of Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh, what’s your outlook for the U.S. Supreme Court? Does this affect prospects for atmospheric-trust litigation?
Wood: It affects federal litigation but not the state cases, because they have their own supreme courts. And the global atmospheric-trust cases are gaining momentum and creating a domino effect. A recent case in Colombia stopped old-growth logging in the Amazon forest. A Netherlands decision ordered the Dutch government to achieve a 25 percent reduction in carbon emissions [below 1990 levels] by 2020. Judges are stepping up because they are alarmed about the climate crisis. The clear trend is toward courts declaring a right for future generations to inherit a stable atmosphere.
The next era of public-trust litigation must focus on the corruption of our democracy: campaign finance. Government officials act as trustees for property owned collectively by the citizens. They must manage the resources strictly to promote the interests of the citizens, not private corporations. Trustees must not have a self-interest in the trust they manage: that would obviously compromise their loyalty to their beneficiaries. Taking campaign contributions from big corporations is a clear violation of this core duty — even though it may be legal under campaign-finance laws. If a trustee accepted money for favors in the private context, a court would consider that trustee’s management decisions tainted and void them.
DeMocker: A couple of critics have said that recognition of an atmospheric public trust would spell the end of private-property rights.
Wood: Their assumption is exactly backwards. What would spell the end of meaningful private property rights is climate chaos. Floods, fires, and droughts make for worthless land. And there are no property rights when desperate people invade your land in search of survival resources. Those who worry about encroachment on private-property rights seem to have no sense that private property requires natural infrastructure to have any value at all.
DeMocker: Juliana v. United States achieved a landmark ruling in 2016. How will you measure the ultimate success of the case?
Wood: Any litigation has two phases: declaring the rights and enforcing the remedy. The Juliana case scored a huge victory in that first phase when the court rejected the government’s early motion to dismiss the case. It declared that the citizens have public-trust rights to a stable atmosphere, and they also have rights under the U.S. Constitution to a climate system “capable of sustaining human life.” In the remedy phase the young plaintiffs are asking for an enforceable, science-based climate-recovery plan initiating a transition to renewable energy sources. But we have yet to see a court enforce the remedy phase of a climate lawsuit. The Juliana case will get there, but the Trump administration’s lawyers are doing everything possible to avoid a trial. Right now the case is entangled in procedural motions. When the time comes for a remedy in any of the state, federal, or global cases, it will boil down to this: Will the judges step up and enforce the rights of citizens? They did so in Brown v. Board of Education.
People often worry that judges are vulnerable to political pressure. It’s true that state judges are often elected and subject to campaign-finance pressure. But no judge can be overtly lobbied, as legislators can. While there clearly have been some corrupt judges throughout history, the judiciary as a whole is more insulated from corruption than the other two branches. Also judges must declare their decisions in a written opinion, which makes their rationale subject to scrutiny from the bar. That sort of professional accountability doesn’t exist with legislators.
DeMocker: If the Juliana case succeeds, won’t there be a disruption in the economy?
Wood: There will be significant disruption either way. If we do nothing, the climate catastrophes will only mount, causing death and destruction in virtually every region of the country. Our choice is clear: ignore the crisis and be swept up in a cycle of accelerating disaster, or manage a rapid decline of fossil-fuel use to avert the worst. I think most people would rather see a transition to renewable fuels facilitated by their government than find themselves on their rooftops as floodwaters rise in the wake of a hurricane, or be forced to flee their homes in the black of night as a raging wildfire explodes behind them.
The ecological collapse of our nation is now in sight. We can no longer say that it’s only our children who will experience this. It’s all of us, and it’s now. Everyone is vulnerable. Louisiana already has a plan to encourage people to move away from its coastline. Some of the incinerated areas of California will not be rebuilt. If we do nothing and let this climate crisis worsen, scientists say broad swaths of the U.S. are not going to be habitable in a matter of decades. The question is: Are we going to slash emissions before it’s too late?
DeMocker: Your book Nature’s Trust doesn’t propose incremental reform, or even just stopping the destruction, but a “massive rebuilding and restitution of the people’s rightful natural wealth.” How do you envision such a drastic overhaul of government’s relationship to nature?
Wood: Currently the permit system drains most government agencies of energy, resources, and talent. Their focus is on how much harm they can allow. Imagine turning that around: How much restoration can we achieve? Permit writers could become restoration managers. We could actually use the federal and state governments to recover and produce natural wealth, rather than allow its incremental destruction. Momentum would build quickly because the new focus would produce economic opportunities and safer living conditions, and it would increase community resilience when climate disasters strike. We need a rebuilding period.
DeMocker: Yet the opposite is happening under the Trump administration.
Wood: Trump’s priority is to lease public lands and offshore areas for fossil-fuel development by huge corporations. Yet the public owns all of these lands. More than a third of the land base in this country is public: national forests, wilderness areas, parks, post offices, defense facilities. It’s time we look at environmental problems as property disputes. The American public has to wake up and realize, “Hey, we own a third of this country, and these lands must be managed for our benefit, not Exxon’s.”
DeMocker: You are known to be optimistic. Do you have a spiritual outlook?
Wood: I was raised to honor our ancestors and care for our descendants and to know I am part of a meaningful family lineage. I come from a long line of conservationists who stood up to defend forests, fisheries, and rivers. That’s the legacy of my family, and we pass that along to younger generations. I regularly call upon my nieces and nephews and my own children to get involved in environmental struggles, and they have amazed me, testifying for plastic-bag bans, climate-recovery ordinances, and so much more. They all love nature and are deeply worried about their future.
DeMocker: Why don’t more of us feel called to serve nature and future generations?
Wood: Many people don’t stay in one place long enough to put down roots in the community, to know their surroundings, to build a family identity inseparable from the landscape around them. Americans move, on average, every six or seven years. They are missing out on a dimension of life that human communities throughout history have nurtured.
And you can’t blame them. Most Americans are subservient to corporations for jobs, and corporations don’t care if they uproot people. But the fabric of our society depends on there being some population stability in a community. We have a whole generation of young people growing up with no sustained connection to the place in which they live. This has to affect their worldview.
DeMocker: You practice “relocalization” with your family. What is that?
Wood: Relocalization is reinventing the way you live with ecological balance in mind. It’s both a jump start to carbon reduction and a lifeline during climate disasters. Its goals are resilience and safety, but it also begs us to question our consumption and redefine what contributes to satisfaction. For example, consider the act of making food instead of buying it. Putting up food for the winter can take most of my free time over four months. The part of me defined by the larger culture says, You’re a fool. You could have bought these things at the grocery store. But the part that inevitably wins out says it was worth it on so many levels.
My garden provides food security and a multitude of other benefits: low carbon pollution, positive health impacts, family activity, and a sense of cohesion. It teaches my kids survival skills they can use. When my children deliver lettuce and tomatoes to our neighbors, it helps build a sense of community. And gardening relieves me from spending time in big-box stores, which can be confusing, alienating, and exhausting. My goal each day is to create a meal that is as locally derived as possible.
DeMocker: And you’ve held fast to this lifestyle as the kids have gotten older or when life gets busy?
Wood: You can’t be a purist in a society that is the opposite of what you want to be. We have an 80 percent goal: we try to source 80 percent of our food locally, by growing some ourselves, buying locally produced bulk grains, and purchasing directly from farmers. My grandmother made everything from scratch, and I’m intentionally trying to re-create the life she took for granted. The home used to be the center of production. Juxtaposed against the waste and chemicals associated with our food system, this seems the most practical and fulfilling way to live. Environmental law won’t work unless people change their lifestyles. Modeling the behavior you want to see is a powerful form of activism: to live in a sustainable way and hope others like the looks of it. It’s a great family life — healthy, purposeful, and meaningful. Is it perfect? No. Do we break our rules and sometimes come up short of our goals? Yes. Are we always trying? Yes.
Modern lifestyles are completely detached from the reality of climate change. We pursue this hypermaterialism, not understanding that it will destroy our natural world and take from us even our basic comfort. I advocate scaling back to the basics and trying out the principle “less is more.”
DeMocker: Some people think there’s not much we can do to mitigate climate change, and we should enjoy life while we can by living it up.
Wood: That is both disheartening and indifferent to people’s primal concern for children. If your child had some terrible disease, would you just give up? No, you would fight to the very end. There’s no guarantee we can stave off catastrophe, but scientists still say there remains a final narrow window of opportunity. Nature’s resilience might be greater than we think, and we can’t possibly predict the technology of the future. To say that all is lost when we still have the power to change course seems immoral and self-indulgent. The lives of our children and all future humanity hang in the balance. But one thing is clear: we have to live differently tomorrow than we did yesterday. Everyone is part of the problem, and everyone needs to be part of the solution. Nobody can sit this one out, or the massive change we need won’t happen. Low-carbon lifestyles have to become mainstream in short order.
I believe strongly in the human capacity to change. In World War II this nation had to mobilize almost overnight. It was incredible. The U.S. became a different country in the course of just a few months. Families grew their own food. They stopped driving for pleasure. They recycled metal, rubber, and paper. Kids collected foil gum-wrappers and made them into balls for aluminum factories that produced aircraft and ship parts. Auto manufacturers stopped making cars for three years and just produced defense equipment. The glaring difference between then and now is that during World War II our leaders were loyal to the American public and inspired a patriotism that helped win the war. Today our leaders are loyal to fossil-fuel corporations and divide citizens, making neighbors into enemies.
DeMocker: You have talked about “climate victory speakers.” What are they?
Wood: Back in World War II citizens known as victory speakers helped mobilize the nation rapidly. They were average people who would give five-minute talks at bridge clubs, movie theaters, PTA meetings — anywhere. My mother and grandmother were both victory speakers and gave four to five speeches a day, telling people how to garden and can vegetables to conserve resources for the war effort.
People listen to trusted members of the community more than they listen to scientists or academics. Victory speakers can wake Americans up to our new reality and tell them what they can do about it. Neighborhood associations are tremendous for this. Churches are already organized through their committees and membership lists. I also see a role for the Internet and social media. A league of concerned citizens has to step up and say, “This will be my purpose. I can’t solve all the problems. I can’t plant all the gardens. But I’m going to take on the task of waking people up.”
Let there be no mistake, our government’s energy policies are a threat to our collective survival. But we’ve faced tyrannical threats before and overcome them — by uniting in solidarity. This is an “all hands on deck” moment for planetary defense. If we come together to confront this unprecedented peril, with everyone stepping up to contribute, we just might transform our present political divisiveness into a unified effort to preserve our country.
DeMocker: What holds some people back?
Wood: Some are overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem and can’t see their role in solving it. So they retreat into their routine and feel guilty for not participating in the solution. That’s a recipe for despair.
But once people get past the dismal predictions and realize they can make a difference, they are inspired and empowered by the sense of community that comes from addressing a common threat. It’s like watering a withering plant.
DeMocker: Do you sometimes succumb to despair?
Wood: A strange part of my coping strategy is selective denial. I put thoughts of the climate crisis away and focus on what is in front of me in the moment. I can be horrified by a new scientific report about ocean collapse, then shut it off and have a great bike ride with my children. In a way, I understand the impulse of global-warming deniers very well.
DeMocker: You’ve spoken of a “new planetary patriotism” that transcends national borders. What does this look like?
Wood: There are people fighting oil drilling in South America and logging in Indonesia and coal mining in Australia who are all connected by the Internet and realizing that the same forces of destruction operate in every country. To restore climate stability, we must launch an all-out, global atmospheric-defense effort. Alliances can form across borders. Where governments are allied with industry, average citizens must challenge their own governments.
DeMocker: How do citizens send a message to the courts?
Wood: With traditional media, as well as demonstrations that broadcast moral outrage over fossil-fuel policies. Public opinion can sway judges. They read the papers every day; they talk to colleagues; they have children who talk to them about issues. Judges are moved and persuaded by the attitudes they view in society.
The key is for citizens to be vocal about their moral imperatives in forums that will filter through to judges. We can’t write letters to judges the way we can to state legislators, but we can write letters to the editor that will likely be read by judges.
Cities are key here, too. They are starting to go on the attack against fossil-fuel companies. San Francisco, Oakland, New York, and others have filed legal actions against big fossil-fuel companies for damages resulting from climate disruption. These lawsuits are laying the groundwork to hold these industries accountable. It won’t be long before CEOs worry that they can be held personally liable for the mounting damage to the world.
On the other hand, these lawsuits may seek the wrong remedy. They demand monetary compensation to build seawalls and repair infrastructure. If cities just seek money to make repairs, we will continue headlong toward irreversible planetary heating. Building a seawall is not going to save the planet. It might not even save San Francisco.
DeMocker: What remedy should these lawsuits seek?
Wood: They should demand the fossil-fuel companies finance an atmospheric cleanup plan that would capture carbon from the atmosphere and store it — a process called carbon sequestration. When BP and Exxon spilled massive amounts of oil into the ocean, they had to pay for a cleanup effort to restore the marine environment. Major carbon polluters should be forced to do the same for the atmosphere. It’s not enough just to stop emissions tomorrow. We’ve already put too much carbon in the atmosphere. Like an oil spill in the ocean, it needs to be cleaned up. The sky is one big hazardous-waste dump, and the fossil-fuel industry should be forced to fund the cleanup.
DeMocker: How can we clean it up?
Wood: By planting trees, restoring wetlands and mangrove forests, and changing agricultural practices. These methods draw down carbon from the air and lock it in the soil. They won’t solve the whole problem, but they’re a good start. It may be that there’s so much carbon in the atmosphere that we also have to rely on technology that hasn’t been developed yet, but scientists say we cannot afford to delay. The good news is that the methods I mentioned have other benefits, like flood control, improved food and fisheries production, enhanced resistance to storms, and so forth.
The monetary reserves and profits of the fossil-fuel companies should be going into this effort to clean up the atmosphere, which, in turn, would force a wind down of this deadly industry. The sky cleanup will take enormous amounts of money. We’ve entered a new era in which the death and destruction from fossil-fuel burning is obvious, and so is the responsibility for it.
DeMocker: Has your message to audiences changed since the 2016 election?
Wood: Trump says he wants to develop trillions of dollars’ worth of fossil fuels, which makes him the most dangerous person on the planet, climate-wise.
My message is always that the Founders created three branches of government, and people need to explore other routes besides the executive branch of the federal government to stop this perilous energy policy. State governments, local governments, institutions like businesses and churches and so forth — all of these need to be tapped.
State and local laws are one mechanism we could use to block fossil-fuel transport and export projects. Transportation routes extend hundreds or thousands of miles and pass through many communities along the way. The fossil-fuel industry has to secure every link in the chain before it can get the product to the buyer. This is a major vulnerability for the industry. Every single community along that route can potentially clamp down to defeat the company’s ambitions. Communities retain a lot of power, even during the Trump presidency.
The Pacific Northwest is a gateway for fossil fuels en route to Asian markets, but citizens there have turned that into a choke point. People are protesting in the streets and mounting challenges in the courtrooms. As a result, state and local agencies have repeatedly denied permits for these projects. No project there has successfully gone through yet.
The time has come for much more peaceful protest, civil disobedience, and creative strategy. No movement has ever succeeded without street-level democracy. The most exciting political actions I see are the youth-led Sunrise Movement and the Green New Deal spearheaded by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the newly elected congresswoman from the Bronx. Her plan calls for decarbonization by 2030. That is not only the safest route yet proposed, but would create a massive number of jobs. It’s exactly what is needed to unite our country in the face of this threat.
DeMocker: Children in Eugene helped pass the city’s Climate Recovery Ordinance, the nation’s first climate-recovery law, which commits Eugene to specific carbon-reduction goals. But it’s just one city. Why work on the city level?
Wood: Because this decision could provide a model for others. San Francisco banned plastic bags, and then Portland, Eugene, and others followed suit. We need examples of bold leadership, so that other, not-so-bold leaders can follow in their footsteps.
DeMocker: My teens, along with many other youths, attended those city-council meetings where the ordinance passed. After the council’s vote, they were stunned and asked, “Did we actually make a difference by being here?”
Wood: They were essential. Officials rarely hear from children. They rarely hear testimony that evokes moral values and legacy. Instead officials tend to cling to bureaucratic language devoid of moral questions, which makes it easier for them to perpetrate this crime against humanity. But when children are in the room, the conversation changes. I believe that’s because, if we adults do nothing, these kids face misery in the future. Recently one child testified before Eugene city officials about the climate, saying, “What children want most is to be free from fear.” When children show up, they carry the moral authority. A decision maker has to look them in the eye, and that can change a decision maker’s perspective.
DeMocker: Many children, especially teenagers, seem to yearn for a deeper purpose beyond their assigned roles as consumers. Might the daunting task of climate recovery offer that purpose?
Wood: Yes, climate recovery would offer young people an unparalleled opportunity to contribute to society. But adults need to teach children about the democratic process so they can understand how to take part in it. One high-school teacher in Portland asked me what his students could do for the climate, and I gave him ideas. They wrote letters, attracted media attention, and met with legislators. All it took was a little guidance. Too many young people are growing up without a sense of citizenship. Devoted mothers and fathers shuttle their kids to soccer games and piano lessons but rarely give attention to civic duty. Citizenship is the price we pay for democracy. If we give up on that, we are headed into despotism.
Parents have to wake up to the threat. Most are equipping kids for a world that scientists say simply will not exist. And by being “good” parents, many are leading a high-carbon lifestyle, making the problem worse. If they can grasp the peril to their children, they will dive into the problem. If you were at the edge of a river and saw a small child drowning, you would jump in and rescue that child. I think we all would. Well, there are children in that river — it’s my children, it’s your children, it’s everybody’s children — and they are drowning. We need to jump in.
Teaser photo credit: © Cole Thompson