In April 2016, twenty-one plaintiffs, aged eight to nineteen, brought a lawsuit against the federal government and the fossil fuel industry to the United States Federal District Court in Eugene, Oregon. Judge Thomas Coffin ruled 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, connecting climate change and the US Constitution.
The court agreed to the plaintiffs’ assertion that it is the government’s duty to abide by the rules of the public trust doctrine, protecting essential natural resources.
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, 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.”
The corporate media coverage of this lawsuit included two pieces form the New York Times, one by John Schwartz and a shorter opinion piece by Anna North, both published in early May. In November 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 September 2016, Judge Ann Aiken, another judge in the same Federal Court, is scheduled to review Judge Coffin’s decision.
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.
Student Researchers: Sabrina Salinas and Eric Osterberg (Citrus College)
Faculty Evaluator: Andy Lee Roth (Citrus College)