A US federal judge has decided that kids should be able to sue for a safe climate. On Friday (April 8) US Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin of the Federal District Court in Eugene, Oregon ruled in favor of 21 young plaintiffs who, together with famed climate scientist Dr. James Hansen, are suing the federal government for violating the constitutional rights of the next generation by continuing to allow the pollution that causes climate change. As the judge has declined the motion to dismiss brought by the fossil fuel industry and federal government, this landmark constitutional climate change case against the federal government is now allowed to proceed.
The federal lawsuit is part of a broad effort led by Oregon-based nonprofit Our Children’s Trust, which together with its allies has filed lawsuits and petitions in every state in the country. The 21 youth plaintiffs participating in this case range in age from 8 to 19 and come from across the country. They claim that the federal government is violating their constitutional rights to life, liberty and property, and their right to essential public trust resources, by permitting, encouraging and otherwise enabling continued exploitation, production and combustion of fossil fuels.
The lawsuit is based in part on the idea of the public trust, which holds that governments must protect commonly held natural resources and systems, including for example coastlines and waterways, for public use. The plaintiffs allege that the climate and atmosphere must be likewise protected, and in Friday’s decision the court found that the federal government is indeed subject to the public trust doctrine. The Court’s decision also 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.”
On the other side, lawyers for the fossil fuel companies argued that ruling in the plaintiffs’ favor would cause them considerable harm, and that they are already subject to many environmental regulations under laws like the federal Clean Air Act.
In a statement declaring the case will proceed, Judge 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. It may be that eventually the alleged harms, assuming the correctness of plaintiffs’ analysis of the impacts of global climate change, will befall all of us. But the 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. This is especially true when such harms have an alleged disparate impact on a discrete class of society.”
The plaintiffs’ attorney Philip Gregory said Judge Coffin’s decision is, according to Ecowatch, “one of the most significant in our nation’s history. The court upheld our claims that the federal government intensified the danger to our plaintiffs’ lives, liberty and property. Judge Coffin decided our complaint will move forward and put climate science squarely in front of the federal courts. The next step is for the court to order our government to cease jeopardizing the climate system for present and future generations. The court gave America’s youth a fair opportunity to be heard.”
Kelsey Juliana, lead plaintiff in the case, noted to The Oregonian, “This will be the trial of the century that will determine if we have a right to a livable future, or if corporate power will continue to deny our rights for the sake of their own wealth.”
The next step in this case is a review of Judge Coffin’s decision by Judge Ann Aiken, who works in the same Federal Court.
The defendants have 14 days to file objections to Judge Coffin’s recommendation.
(Photo credit: Our Children’s Trust)