Kids Sue the US Government for the Right to a Stable Climate

BY ON June 13, 2017
Youth plaintiffs are suing the US government over inaction on climate change (Photo: Robin Loznak)

Youth plaintiffs are suing the US government over inaction on climate change (Photo: Robin Loznak)


Nine-year old Levi Draheim lives on one of Florida’s fragile barrier islands, just 13 feet above sea level. In his short lifetime, he has already experienced the impact of climate change on his local ecosystems and on his health. Among other things, Levi has had to curtail his outdoor activities due to seasonal allergies, and can no longer swim in the Indian River Lagoon because of increasing flesh-eating bacteria and dead fish.

Levi is the youngest of 21 young people from across the U.S. who are taking the government to court, asserting that their constitutional and public trust rights are being violated by its creation of climate danger.

Represented by lawyers from Our Children’s Trust, the 21 filed a lawsuit, Juliana v. United States in 2015, arguing that the federal government, through its,

“… affirmative action in causing climate change, … has violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources.”

Or, as plaintiff Nathan Baring, 17, of Fairbanks, Alaska succinctly puts it,

“Our government continues making today’s profit a priority over protecting our right to a sustainable future. My generation, without voting rights, hasn’t been fairly represented in making decisions that will affect our lives.”

The complaint, filed in US District Court in Oregon, spells out the US government’s historical and ongoing role in continuing to promote and encourage the use of fossil fuels — in spite of long-known scientific evidence of it’s dangers.

“ … rather than implement a rational course of effective action to phase out carbon pollution, Defendants have continued to permit, authorize, and subsidize fossil fuel extraction, development, consumption and exportation – activities producing enormous quantities of CO2 emissions that have substantially caused or substantially contributed to the increase in the atmospheric concentration of CO2. Through its policies and practices, the Federal Government bears a higher degree of responsibility than any other individual, entity, or country for exposing Plaintiffs to the present dangerous atmospheric CO2 concentration. In fact, the United States is responsible for more than a quarter of global historic cumulative CO2 emissions.”

The complaint details how climate change directly impacts the current and future rights of each plaintiff. Eleven of them live in Oregon, while the other ten are from Washington, Colorado, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Arizona, Alaska, and Hawaii.

Named plaintiff in the case, Kelsey Cascadia Rose Juliana, 21, from Eugene Oregon, sums up the group’s deep sense of urgency,

“I believe that climate change is the most pressing issue my generation will ever face, indeed that the world has ever faced. This is an environmental issue and it is also a human rights issue.”

The case is quickly gathering steam, despite the government’s appeals to dismiss, which was denied by US District Judge Ann Aiken, who found in November, 2016, that,

“Exercising my ‘reasoned judgment,’ I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society.”

The Trump Administration then filed a motion for an interlocutory appeal of that decision, which Judge Aiken denied on June 8, 2017.

With the facts in their favor, the young plaintiffs also have the fossil fuel industry on the run. Last month, three interveners, American Petroleum Institute (API), American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM), and National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) that originally sought to protect their own interests by joining the government as defendants are now asking for permission to withdraw from the case.

Many believe that this change of heart was prompted by what the government’s co-defendants would be forced to reveal during the discovery process. As Julia Olson, co-lead counsel for plaintiffs and executive director of Our Children’s Trust, said in a May 25 press release ,

“API and its members will not come clean on the facts of climate change because they know it exposes them to liability for the damage they too have caused to the global climate system.”

In terms of relief, the Plaintiffs’ complaint, among other things, asks the court to,

  • Declare that Defendants have violated and are violating Plaintiffs’ fundamental constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property by substantially causing or contributing to a dangerous concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, and that, in so doing, Defendants dangerously interfere with a stable climate system required by our nation and Plaintiffs alike;
  • Enjoin Defendants from further violations of the Constitution underlying each claim for relief;
  • Declare Defendants’ public trust violations and enjoin Defendants from violating the public trust doctrine underlying each claim for relief;
  • Order Defendants to prepare a consumption-based inventory of U.S. CO2 emissions;
  • Order Defendants to prepare and implement an enforceable national remedial plan to phase out fossil fuel emissions and draw down excess atmospheric CO2 so as to stabilize the climate system and protect the vital resources on which Plaintiffs now and in the future will depend;
  • Retain jurisdiction over this action to monitor and enforce Defendants’ compliance with the national remedial plan and all associated orders of this Court.

As Attorney Olson points out in a statement responding to Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement, the young plaintiffs’ lawsuit is more significant than ever.

“The youth climate lawsuit – Juliana v. US – will provide the constitutional mandate for the United States and the Trump Administration to transition to a clean energy economy, to protect the youngest generation’s right to a stable climate. At this historic moment, we need enforceable domestic actions, not empty global promises. The U.S. government has a duty to chart the course to reduce atmospheric CO2 concentrations from over 400 ppm to a safe level, below 350 ppm, by the year 2100. We believe that courts, including the U.S. District Court in Oregon, as a co-equal branch of government, can and will use judicial oversight to ensure the executive branch is complying with its constitutional and public trust obligation to implement a climate recovery plan. And unlike the Paris Agreement, the Trump Administration cannot withdraw from this lawsuit.”

On June 9th, the Trump administration took the extraordinary step of petitioning for a review of Judge Aiken’s November 2016 denial of their original appeal. And, it also is seeking “a stay of proceedings in the district court” while the Ninth Circuit considers its petition.

The government can try to run, but it can’t hide from the determination of these young plaintiffs.  As Kiran Oomen, ​20, of Eugene, Oregon vows,

“The fact that the US government is doing everything it can to avoid going to court against us makes it hard to believe they have any case whatsoever. The judicial branch is a vital part to our justice system in this country, and the government’s evasion of the courts threatens the rights of every citizen in this country. We’ll see you in court Donald Trump.”



TOPICS: Activism, Alaska, Children's Health, Climate Change, Florida, Oregon