The case is currently set to go to trial in February. The government is fighting fiercely to dismiss the matter as fast as possible—the Dec. 11 court date was to decide whether the government’s dismissal argument has any merit. But in some senses, whatever happens, it’s already a win for the 21 young Americans who are plaintiffs and their global movement. In bringing the case to the courts, the kids are challenging the world’s most prominent climate change denier, US president Donald Trump. And they are getting a chance to highlight the science that’s being ignored at their expense in the court of public opinion.
Kids v. Feds
Juliana v. US (pdf) was originally filed in an Oregon district court in 2015 by 21 minors from around the country. The youth—now ages 10 to 21—argue that by adopting policies that promote fossil fuel use, leading to the emission of carbon dioxide at rates that change the climate, despite knowing these energy sources are warming the planet, the federal government violates “the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property,” and fails to protect essential resources held in trust for the public.
The children say everything is at stake for them. “I hope that the court understands the urgency of the climate crisis and allows our case to proceed to trial,” one plaintiff, 17-year-old Jaime Butler from Flagstaff, Arizona, explained at a press conference last week (pdf). “This case will ultimately determine the livelihood of my tribe, the Navajo Nation, and all native people in this country.”
A fundamental right to a stable climate that sustains life is implied in the constitution, the kids argue. It’s not explicitly written—but it’s assured by the document’s general principles. The right to pursue life, liberty, and happiness, which the constitution provides, is meaningless on a planet that can’t sustain life, so it follows that protecting the environment for the American people is an essential if unexpressed element of the law. The children also claim they are being discriminated against. The government’s past and current policy decisions, they say, disproportionately impact young people, violating the constitution’s Equal Protection Clause.
New but doable
The case has already gone much further than industry or the federal government hoped.
Coffin recommended the case proceed to trial at the district court level, finding no reason to dismiss the case as the government and associations requested, noting a similar 2015 Netherlands case advanced by Dutch kids as precedent. In it, courts ruled that the Dutch government was in negligent breach of policies adopted to stop global warming; the government was ordered to reduce emissions by 25% within five years. Coffin, in his June decision, pointed out that the Dutch government’s argument that one nation alone cannot mitigate climate change failed to convince courts that the Netherlands wasn’t responsible for at least trying to stop global warming.
Just because it’s new or difficult to do, doesn’t mean it can’t or won’t happen, however. In fact, observers of the hearing didn’t seem to think it went the government’s way. Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University told Inside Climate News that, based on the panel’s questions, the matter will likely proceed to trial in Oregon next year. Still, if it does, the government will surely keep on trying anything to thwart the kids, he predicts.
In the long view, whether or not there is a trial in February and whatever the outcome if it does happen, the case is a victory of sorts for everyone.
By claiming the constitutional right to a cool future, and reminding adults that they are merely the Earth’s trustees, not its owners, children create legal precedent, make their case in the court of public opinion, and do society a service by introducing the ideas that are later deemed progress.
This is how rights are made, through legal fights that seem a lost cause in isolation, but build up steam, finding increasing societal support over time until courts can no longer deny the claims. Civil rights were won this way in the 1960s, as was the right to same-sex marriage in the new millennium. Now, in the 2010s, children are stepping up for the planet in courts all over the world:
>>In 2012, Ugandan youth (pdf) sued the state for failing to comply with international climate-change agreements.
>>In 2015, Dutch kids won Urgenda Foundation v. The State of the Netherlands (pdf), the case mentioned earlier in this article.
>>In 2016, a seven-year-old girl’s climate-change suit against Pakistan has been allowed to proceed over state objections.
>>In March of this year, an Indian child (pdf) sued authorities for ignoring environmental regulations.
In the US, the young Americans already sense their efforts are working. “I felt that the court understood the gravity of our need for trial,” Nathan Baring, a 17-year-old plaintiff from Fairbanks, Alaska said after this week’s hearing in San Francisco (pdf). “I believe that the momentum is on our side and it’s time for climate science to have its day in court.”