Earth & Conservation

Federal Court Hears Oral Arguments in Climate Change Lawsuit From Young People

Twenty-one people between the ages of 10 and 21 are suing the federal government for violating their rights by contributing to climate change.

A bold climate change lawsuit faces a pivotal test this week as a federal court considers whether young people can sue the US government for its role in causing climate change.

The lawsuit, Juliana v. United States, has attracted growing interest in the legal world for its unique and unprecedented approach to climate change. The plaintiffs — 21 young, US citizens aged 10 to 21 — are essentially suing the US federal government for depriving them of a secure future.

The basis of the litigation is a novel legal theory. According to the plaintiffs, the US federal government is responsible for holding natural resources in trust for its citizens. The government is violating that public trust doctrine, in regard to environmental protection, according to the lawsuit.

More specifically, the plaintiffs insist that the US government has failed to heed the scientific evidence on how to stop or reverse climate change — evidence that in many cases was provided by the government's own dedicated scientific agencies.

For the case to actually move forward and go to trial, it must past muster with the Ninth Circuit court, which began hearing oral arguments today. Attorneys for the Trump administration are asking the court to dismiss the case on the grounds that a broad mandate from the courts to fundamentally change environmental policy would be impossible to implement.

The plaintiffs' case is led by the group Our Children’s Trust, which has previously brought similar litigation at the state and federal level, with mixed success. In the case now before the Ninth Circuit, attorneys will argue that the US government is violating the plaintiffs' constitutional rights. 

“Their complaint asserts that, through the government's affirmative actions that cause climate change, it has violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources,” the Our Children's Trust said in a statement.

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The federal district court in Oregon has allowed the lawsuit to proceed. In fact, a trial date has already been scheduled for February. This week's proceedings will determine whether that date will be postponed or canceled.

Recent events have added a new and compelling twist to the case. When the lawsuit was initially filed in 2015, attorneys for the Obama administration argued that the government was taking action to address climate change, including implementation of its Climate Action Plan and efforts to broker the global Paris climate agreement.

Changes in these policies by the Trump administration — like pulling the US out of the Paris accords — mean that those arguments can no longer be made. In fact, recent reversals of Obama-era climate policies add even more urgency to the matter, according to the plaintiffs.

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