A federal judge in Oregon is deciding whether a group of children have the right to take the federal government to court over climate change and hold leaders accountable for squandering natural resources, including clean water and air.
These children ranging from 8 years old to those in their teenage years are the faces of a public lawsuit organized by Our Children’s Trust. The suit compels leaders to take bold steps to prevent atmospheric carbon emissions from veering further out of control. Records already show that global CO2 emissions have reached 400 parts per million even though 350ppm is the highest level climate scientists have deemed safe.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas M. Coffin is expected to rule this spring on whether the case can move forward. This comes after the Department of Justice and fossil fuel industry leaders asked the court to dismiss this historic lawsuit. Judge Coffin recently heard arguments from both sides on dismissing the case.
— Our Children’s Trust (@OCTorg) March 15, 2016
The children are making the case that America’s failure to act on climate change is robbing future generations of opportunities. The youth include the granddaughter of former director of NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, James Hansen. Their legal team is arguing the consequences of not turning back climate change are so serious that the next generation is being denied its fundamental constitutional rights to life, liberty and property.
As an expert on climate change science, Hansen offered a declaration addendum to the plaintiffs’ case. The declaration includes this explanation of the government’s contradictory role regarding climate:
“On the one hand, our federal government has recognized a fundamental duty to protect the public resources of our nation; to safeguard our lives and property; to secure the blessings of liberty; to ensure equal protection under the law for ‘ourselves and our posterity’; and, pursuant to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), to ‘protect the climate system for present and future generations.’
“On the other hand, the federal government continues to permit and otherwise support industry’s efforts to exploit fully our reserves of gas, coal, and oil, even in the face of increasing overwhelming evidence that our continued fossil fuel dependency is driving the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) far beyond that in human experience, and constitutes one of the greatest threats to our nation, human civilization and nature alike.
“These antinomies cannot be explained away as the product of ignorance. Our government has known for decades that the continued burning of coal, oil and natural gas causes global warming and risks dangerous and uncontrollable destabilization of the planet’s climate system on which our nation and future generations depend.”
The suit was filed against the U.S. government, not private industry. But entities now listed as intervenor-defendants include the National Association of Manufacturers, American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, and the American Petroleum Institute.
The defendants call the lawsuit “extraordinary,” as they argue the children and their legal team are asking too much of the government and industry regulation. One specific argument against the case is that the public trust doctrine is a matter for states to deal with, not the federal government. Another is that greenhouse gases are a global issue that cannot be the responsibility of any one government. The two sides are also debating whether children qualify as a protected class of citizens.
“Defendants are wrong that our complaint fails to allege constitutional and public trust violations for the harms caused these young plaintiffs,” said Julia Olson, executive director of Our Children’s Trust, in her closing argument of the March hearing. “Defendants in essence ask this court to ignore the undisputed scientific evidence, presented in our complaint in opposing this motion, that the federal government has, and continues to, damage plaintiffs’ personal security and other fundamental rights. But these young plaintiffs have the right to prove the government’s role in harming them has been knowing and deliberate.”
Several of the young plaintiffs have been outspoken throughout the civil process. Sixteen-year-old plaintiff Victoria Barrett told reporters at a news conference: “I want to do what I love and live a life full of opportunities. I want the generation that follows to have the same and I absolutely refuse to let our government’s harmful action, corporate greed, and the pure denial of climate science get in the way of that.”
Our Children’s Trust is a human rights and environmental justice organization.
Image courtesy of Our Children’s Trust