Children May Soon Have Their Day in Court on Climate Change

After a year in which parents and children alike had to witness unconscionable government rollbacks on climate action, it’s exciting to know that young people may have their day in court on this issue as soon as next month.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is expected to rule very soon on whether Juliana v. United States, a lawsuit filed in 2015 on behalf of 21 young people, can proceed to trial in February—or whether to grant the Trump Administration’s extraordinary effort to block it.

At issue in the case, in the words of United States District Judge Ann Aiken: Has the government so profoundly damaged our home planet that they threaten [the plaintiffs’] constitutional right to life and liberty?”

It’s a novel and ambitious suit that takes on some powerful opponents, which, not surprisingly, has elicited some powerful opposition before even getting to court.

What the Children Allege

Here are the young plaintiffs’ charges, profound in their straightforwardness:

  • The government has known for decades that carbon dioxide pollution has been causing catastrophic climate change and has failed to take necessary action to curtail fossil fuels emissions.
  • The government has taken action or failed to take action that has resulted in increased carbon pollution through fossil fuel extraction, production, consumption, transportation, and exportation.
  • The government’s actions and omissions make it extremely difficult for the young plaintiffs to protect their natural systems and a livable world.
  • The government’s actions infringe on their right to life and liberty. They also violate their (a) due process rights, (b) equal protection rights by denying them protections afforded to previous generations and favoring short-term economic interests of certain citizens, and (c) implicit right to a stable climate.
  • The government has violated a public trust doctrine by denying future generations essential natural resources.

Their demand: Immediate action to restore energy balance, and implementation of a plan to put the nation on a trajectory that (if also adhered to by other emitters) will reduce carbon dioxide emissions to safe levels by 2100.

Efforts to Silence the Young People’s Case

After the suit was filed in an Oregon District Court, the federal government and fossil fuel industry both filed motions to have the case dismissed. But in November 2016, Ann Aiken, United States District Judge, denied both motions.

The fossil fuel industry, through its trade associations (the National Association of Manufacturers, the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufactures, and the American Petroleum Institute) sought to withdraw their opposition.

But the federal government, in June 2017, took an extraordinary measure of filing a petition for writ of mandamus—effectively asking the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to overturn the lower court’s motion to proceed.

On Dec. 11, three Ninth Circuit judges in San Francisco heard the government’s lawyers argue that there’s no fundamental right to “a climate system capable of sustaining human life.”

If the courts were to find that this “amorphous and sweeping” right does exist, they argued, it would create an impossible situation, with indefinite judicial review of “all federal policy decisions related to fossil fuels, energy production, alternative energy sources, public lands, and air quality standards,” as Ephrat Livni reported in Quartz.

Legal observers said that it appeared likely that the Ninth Circuit Court would send the case back to the district court in Oregon—allowing it to proceed. (One of the three judges, the one who seemed most sympathetic to the government’s case, has since resigned.)

The decision is expected any day. Stay tuned!

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