#17 Young Plaintiffs Invoke Constitutional Grounds for Climate Protection

by Project Censored

In September 2015, twenty-one plaintiffs, aged eight to nineteen, brought a lawsuit against the federal government and the fossil fuel industry to the US Federal District Court in Eugene, Oregon. The case, Juliana v. United States, argued that the federal government and the fossil fuel industry have knowingly endangered the plaintiffs by promoting the burning of fossil fuels, and that this violates their constitutional and public trust rights. Their complaint said that the defendants “deliberately allow[ed] atmospheric CO2 concentrations to escalate to levels unprecedented in human history.” The lead counsel for the plaintiffs in the case, Julia Olson, is executive director of Our Children’s Trust, a Eugene-based group that advocates for “legally-binding, science-based climate recovery policies.”

In April 2016, US Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin denied a motion to dismiss the case, ruling in favor of the plaintiffs’ charge that the federal government violates constitutional and public trust rights by its ongoing promotion of fossil fuels that destabilize the earth’s climate. In a report published by Forbes, James Conca wrote that the lawsuit was the first of its kind, examining whether the causes of climate change violate the US Constitution. By denying a motion to dismiss, the court found that the federal government is also subject to the public trust doctrine, Conca reported. Public trust doctrine, he explained, “asserts that the government is a trustee of the natural resources that we depend on for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

In his ruling, Justice Coffin wrote, “The debate about climate change and its impact has been before various political bodies for some time now. Plaintiffs give this debate justiciability by asserting harms that befall or will befall them personally and to a greater extent than older segments of society . . . [T]he intractability of the debates before Congress and state legislatures and the alleged valuing of short-term economic interest despite the cost to human life, necessitates a need for the courts to evaluate the constitutional parameters of the action or inaction taken by the government.”

As Conca reported, the decision “upheld the youth Plaintiffs’ claims in the Fifth and Ninth Amendments ‘by denying them protections afforded to previous generations and by favoring the short-term economic interests of certain citizens.’” In January 2016, three fossil fuel industry trade associations, representing nearly all of the world’s largest fossil fuel companies, had called the case “a direct, substantial threat to our businesses.” According to sixteen-year-old plaintiff Victoria Barrett, “Our generation will continue to be a force for the world.”

In November 2016, US District Court Judge Ann Aiken affirmed Coffin’s April ruling, which prepared the way for Juliana v. United States to proceed to trial. As Gabriela Steier reported in JURIST, Judge Aiken’s opinion stated, “This is no ordinary lawsuit.” Judge Aiken’s opinion explained, “This action is of a different order than the typical environmental case. It alleges that defendants’ actions and inactions—whether or not they violate any specific statutory duty—have so profoundly damaged our home planet that they threaten plaintiffs’ fundamental constitutional rights to life and liberty.”

In February 2017, the plaintiffs updated their case to list President Donald Trump as a defendant, replacing former President Barack Obama. A month later, the Trump administration filed a motion to delay trial preparation. As Censored 2018 goes to print, the plaintiffs are pursuing an effort to depose Rex Tillerson, the former ExxonMobil CEO and Trump’s secretary of state, and the country’s most powerful fossil fuel lobbies are seeking the judge’s permission to withdraw from the lawsuit. The trial might begin as early as fall of 2017.

As Juliana v. United States has progressed to its trial phase, the case has received increasing corporate media coverage. But it is important to note that initially corporate media ignored or marginalized the lawsuit. For instance, in a rare instance of corporate news coverage from 2015, MSNBC described the lawsuit as an “unusual case” that is “long on symbolism” but “unlikely” to win, while noting the risks associated with any decision that might diminish the fossil fuel industry’s interests. In November 2016, CBS News and Fox News published stories, based on an Associated Press report, that made passing reference to Juliana v. United States (although not by name) and focused, instead, on a related lawsuit, involving some of the same plaintiffs, in the Washington state judicial system.

James Conca, “Federal Court Rules on Climate Change in Favor of Today’s Children,” Forbes, April 10, 2016, http://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2016/04/10/federal-court-rules-on-climate-change-in-favor-of-todays-children/ – 5e5973246219.

Michelle Nijhuis, “The Teen-Agers Suing Over Climate Change,” New Yorker, December 6, 2016, http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/the-teen-agers-suing-over-climate-change.

Gabriela Steier, “No Ordinary Lawsuit: Juliana v. United States is a Landmark Precedent for Climate Change Legislation,” JURIST, January 6, 2017, http://www.jurist.org/forum/2017/01/Gabriela-Steier-juliana-v-united-states.php.

Zahra Hirji, “Children’s Climate Lawsuit Against U.S. Adds Trump as Defendant,” Inside Climate News, February 9, 2017, https://insideclimatenews.org/news/09022017/climate-change-lawsuit-donald-trump-children.

Ciara O’Rourke, “The 11-Year-Old Suing Trump over Climate Change,” Atlantic, February 9, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/02/trump-climate-lawsuit/516054/.

Student Researchers: Sabrina Salinas and Eric Osterberg (Citrus College)

Faculty Evaluator: Andy Lee Roth (Citrus College)

Review Article with Credder

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