Federal Court to Decide if Kids Can Sue Government for Failing to Act on Climate Change
By Clayton Aldern, Billmoyers.com
Courtrooms usually aren't jovial places, but with 21 youth plaintiffs and two busloads of supporting junior high-school students in tow, the air in the U.S. District Courthouse here on Wednesday felt more field trip than federal court.
The occasion for the youthful energy was a hearing on a complaint filed on behalf of the plaintiffs, aged 8 - 19, by Oregon nonprofit Our Children's Trust. The kids' lawyers assert that their clients and the younger generation as a whole, have been deprived of key rights by their own government. By failing to act on climate change, they argue, the U.S. government—including President Obama and a baker's dozen federal agencies—has valued its own generation more than future generations, who will bear a greater burden with respect to the climate crisis.
The Justice Department filed a motion to dismiss the complaint and Wednesday's hearing had a federal judge considering that motion. The youth plaintiffs' counsel sparred with government lawyers as well as attorneys representing fossil fuel interests. This kind of case might sound, well, juvenile, but trade groups with ties to the oil and gas lobby—the American Petroleum Institute, the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers and the National Association of Manufacturers—were concerned enough about it that they joined as co-defendants in November of last year. Now, the Oregon U.S. District Court will decide whether or not the complaint will proceed to trial.
Xiuhtezcatl Tonatiuh Martinez, a 15-year-old indigenous activist and a plaintiff on the case, summed up the kids' perspective at a press conference after the hearing. “We are valuing our futures over profits," he said. “We are valuing this planet over corporate greed."
This isn't the first time Our Children's Trust has brought forth a youth climate lawsuit. Indeed, the group has at one time or another filed suit in all 50 states and currently has cases pending in five states. Back in November, in a case brought by a coalition of Seattle teenagers, a Washington judge ruled that the state was constitutionally obligated to protect its natural resources “for the common benefit of the people of the State"—a notable win for the young plaintiffs—but she did not go so far as to rule that the state's carbon emissions-limiting standards in question needed to adhere to the “best available science." A 2011 suit, which the youth plaintiffs ended up losing, also targeted the federal government for failing to keep the atmosphere safe for future generations. It perhaps goes without saying that these types of complaints are incredible long shots.
Julia Olson, a lawyer with Wild Earth Advocates and Our Children's Trust who argued the plaintiffs' case on Wednesday, is optimistic about the outcome of this complaint, though. “I believe in our Constitution and I think it can work to address even the most systemic, intractable problem of our generation," she told me.
The complaint alleges violation of the kids' Fifth Amendment rights to due process and equal protection. By failing to act on climate change, it argues, the government discriminates against youth as a class. Without access to a healthy climate, they're deprived of their fundamental rights to life, liberty and property.
The complaint is also built on the public trust doctrine, a carryover from English common law that says a government has the duty to protect certain natural resources and systems on behalf of current and future generations. “It originated with Emperor Justinian in Rome," Alex Loznak, a 19-year-old plaintiff, explained to the press. “It's reflected in the Magna Carta, the writings of Thomas Jefferson and cited in U.S. court decisions dating back to the 1800s."
An important question at hand on Wednesday was whether the public trust doctrine applies to the federal government. The U.S. government and its fossil-fuel industry co-defendants argued that legal precedent only considers it to apply to states. That's a crucial distinction, because it will help determine whether or not the plaintiffs even have standing in the federal court system.
The defendants also contend that if the federal court took on the case, it would amount to an egregious overstep of authority by the judiciary. “This is the type of problem that is designed to be solved by the political branches," argued U.S. counsel Sean C. Duffy at the hearing. He said that denying the U.S. government's motion for dismissal would effectively turn the judicial branch into a “de facto super-agency."
Another core argument of the defense is that all cases addressing constitutional rights must demonstrate that the government, through its actions, has infringed upon these rights or exceeded its authority. Instead, the defense argued, the kids' case alleges a failure to act and you can't require the government to simply “do more." “Our Constitution is one that limits the power of government," argued intervenor counsel Quin Sorenson, who represented industry interests at the hearing.
That's not how Olson sees it, though. “What we have today is not just a failure to act," she told the press after the hearing. “The government is not just sitting by and doing nothing. They are doing everything to cause this problem." Indeed, the complaint calls out the government for its continued actions to “permit, authorize and subsidize fossil fuel extraction, development, consumption and exportation."
Courthouse in Eugene, OR, after the hearing. The banner reads, “Our future is a constitutional right." Photo credit: Clayton Aldern / Grist
It's also not unprecedented for a court to demand that the government meet a specific standard to ensure its citizens' safety, she said. In Brown v. Plata, for example, a 2010 Supreme Court case concerning prison reform, the court required a mandatory limit on prison populations for the sake of health and safety. Summarizing the decision, she said that while the Supreme Court had no scientific standards to apply at the time, it ruled that it could rely on expert evidence. “The Court selected the number—it set the standard—to keep those prisoners safe." And when it comes to determining the safe level of climate pollution in the atmosphere, “we have scientific standards," she said.
pose with Our Children's Trust attorneys Phil Gregory (top left) and Julia Olson
(bottom left). Photo credit: Clayton Aldern / Grist
“The way I hope it will go is that the judicial branch will say, 'You've got to do something,'" said Dr. James Hansen, adjunct professor at Columbia University and former director of NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Hansen's granddaughter is a plaintiff in the case and he's formally listed in the complaint as the legal guardian of “Future Generations." He continued, “Hopefully the court will ask for a plan: How are you going to ensure the rights of young people?"
In a time of gridlock and sorely needed climate action, the case couldn't come soon enough, Hansen said. “It gets harder and harder to stabilize the climate if you go longer and longer without turning the curve."
Addressing climate change is perhaps the greatest challenge of our time and it necessarily causes us to ask some big questions. Is there a constitutional right to be free from climate change? Is there a constitutional right to a safe climate? Is youth a class or simply a mutable trait? If the federal government takes actions that worsen the climate crisis, does that amount to an abuse of its power?
Said Olson: “We are not just in a climate crisis. We will have a significant constitutional crisis and a crisis in our democracy if this doesn't work."
YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE
Yet another former Trump administration staffer has come out with an endorsement for former Vice President Joe Biden, this time in response to President Donald Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
- Trump Denies CDC Director's 2021 Timeline for Coronavirus Vaccine ›
- Trump Orders Hospitals to Stop Sending COVID-19 Data to CDC ... ›
- Two White House Staffers Test Positive for Coronavirus - EcoWatch ›
- Trump Admin to Disband Coronavirus Task Force - EcoWatch ›
- Pence Offers 'Prayers' as Hurricane Laura Hits Gulf Coast While ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Every September for the past 11 years, non-profit the Climate Group has hosted Climate Week NYC, a chance for business, government, activist and community leaders to come together and discuss solutions to the climate crisis.
- Covering the 2020 Elections as a Climate Story - EcoWatch ›
- Coronavirus Delays 2020 Earth Overshoot Day by Three Weeks ... ›
By Elliot Douglas
The coronavirus pandemic has altered economic priorities for governments around the world. But as wildfires tear up the west coast of the United States and Europe reels after one of its hottest summers on record, tackling climate change remains at the forefront of economic policy.
- German Business Leaders Call for Climate Action With COVID-19 ... ›
- Climate Activists Protest Germany's New Datteln 4 Coal Power Plant ... ›
By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.