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Suing the Feds Over Climate Change

Local Matters


Published November 9, 2005 at 2:11 p.m.

EARTH -- Lots of people are concerned about global warming. Arthur and Anne Berndt are doing something about it -- the Sharon sugar makers are suing the Bush Administration. "As a nation, we need to be leading the world in all of our policies, particularly in environmental issues," says Arthur Berndt. "The federal government is funding projects without any consideration of the environmental impact."

The Berndts, who own and operate Maverick Farm, are two of the plaintiffs in this first-of-its-kind lawsuit that holds the federal government responsible for providing $32 billion worth of financial assistance to oil and other fossil-fuel projects without first evaluating their global warming impacts. Other plaintiffs in the class-action case include individuals from several states around the country, as well as the cities of Oakland, Arcata and Santa Monica in California, and Boulder, Colorado. Environmental organizations Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth are also plaintiffs. Ron Schems, a lawyer with the Burlington firm of Schems, Dunkiel, Kassel & Saunders, is the leading attorney in the case.

The plaintiffs are arguing that global warming is one of the most serious environmental threats facing the world, and that two federal agencies using U.S. taxpayer money to finance projects exacerbate the problem. The lawsuit is an attempt to compel the U.S. government to do what many state and local governments are already doing: take immediate and effective action to prevent global warming.

According to Schems, Friends of the Earth studied greenhouse gas emissions and then "followed the money." That trail led to two relatively obscure federal export-credit agencies, the Overseas Private Investment Corp (OPIC) and the Export-Import Bank of the United States (Ex-Im). These agencies provide insurance and financing to United States companies that develop or sell products overseas when the risk is too great for standard commercial investments.

"Enormous amounts of money pass through these [agencies]," Schems explains. "If you follow the money and the greenhouse-gas emissions, they lead to the two specific federal agencies named in the suit. Eight percent of worldwide annual emissions can be traced to projects financed by these two agencies."

The Berndts have owned and operated Maverick Farm, one of the state's largest maple-sugar operations, since 1988. When they retire, they hope to pass the business on to their children or put it into land conservation. Over the past few years, the Berndts say they have noticed life-threatening changes, both to their sugar bush and to the maple-syrup calendar season.

Due to global warming, the maple-beech-birch forests of Vermont are projected to shift north into Canada later this century. When that shift happens, those species will no longer dominate the northeastern United States. The Berndts believe the shift will have a significant impact on their syrup production within the next 10 to 20 years, and possibly sooner -- especially if the warming is accompanied by increases in outbreaks of pests and diseases such pear thrips, lecanium scale and tent caterpillars.

This class-action suit marks the first time a federal court has granted legal standing for a lawsuit that exclusively challenges the federal government's failure to evaluate how its actions affect the Earth's climate and its own citizens. The merits of the case will be heard Feb. 10, 2006, in the Federal District Court in San Francisco.

"The government's position is that climate change doesn't exist, so no one can be injured," Schems says. "We say that [Ex-Im and OPIC] have violated the National Environmental Policy Act."

"This matter goes well beyond an isolated sugar maker in Vermont," says Berndt. "This case is about being stewards of the land. As world citizens, we have an obligation to do that."