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Colorado's oil and gas industry breathed a sigh of relief on Monday after the state's highest court overturned a lower court decision that said state regulators must consider public health and the environment in permitting oil and gas production.
The unanimous ruling was a disappointment for the teenage plaintiffs, including high-profile climate activist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, who led the closely watched lawsuit against the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC).
In a glimmer of hope for climate change litigation, the Supreme Court ruled against the Trump administration's attempt to block a ground-breaking lawsuit brought by 21 young people against the U.S. government for crafting policies that support climate-changing fossil fuels, The Huffington Post reported.
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Alaska has voted for a Republican for president in every U.S. election since 1964, according to the Anchorage Daily News. Given the growing partisan divide on climate change, one would not expect the state to take action on climate change, let alone acknowledge that it is a problem.
The scandal-plagued head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says he's not sure whether "human activity ... is a primary contributor to the global warming that we see." The president has moved to pull the U.S. out of the landmark Paris climate agreement. And climate-science deniers and skeptics control Congress.
[Editor's note: Watch live today, Sept. 13, at 3 p.m. ET, the press event immediately following the ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken on EcoWatch's Facebook page.]
A critical hearing in the landmark climate lawsuit brought by 21 youth plaintiffs across the U.S. will take place in just four days at a federal courthouse in Eugene, Oregon.
On Sept. 13, U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken will hear oral arguments representing all of the parties on Juliana, et al. v. United States, et al, which was first filed in 2015 by the young plaintiffs, ages 8-19, and climate scientist Dr. James Hansen.
According to the nonprofit Our Children's Trust, "the plaintiffs are suing the federal government for 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."
Judge Aiken will review an earlier decision from U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin of the same federal court. In April, Judge Coffin surprisingly ruled in favor of the young plaintiffs despite motions from the government and the fossil fuel industry to dismiss the case. The fate of the historic lawsuit is now in Judge Aiken's hands, who will determine whether the case will either proceed toward trial or to appeal.
One of the plaintiffs, Jayden, is a 13-year-old resident from Rayne, Louisiana. The hearing is particularly significant especially after last month's
climate change-fueled flooding destroyed most of Jayden's home.
"They called it a thousand-year flood, meaning it should only happen every thousand years or so," Jayden said. "But in my state—Louisiana—we have had that thousand-year flood and eight 500-year floods in less than two years. A few weeks ago, I literally stepped out of bed and was up to my ankles in climate change. Soon I will leave my home, which is still a mess—no walls, no carpet, even my little brothers toys were destroyed! But I feel like I have to go to court, because my little brother can't speak for himself, he's too little. But I can speak for him, and for everyone in my generation. It's time we were heard. It's time President Obama protects our future, and my little brothers future."
Representing the plaintiffs are attorneys Julia A. Olson of Wild Earth Advocates, Philip L. Gregory of Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy, LLP and Daniel M. Galpern.
"My client Jayden, who is 13 years old, just survived a thousand-year flood event that devastated her home with sewage-contaminated rivers running through her bedroom and her community," said Olson, who is also the executive director and chief legal counsel of Our Children's Trust.
"This is the ninth flood event that is supposed to happen once every 500 years or more to hit her region in two years, floods that would not happen but for climate change. Yet, the national energy policy of the U.S. is 'drill baby, drill.' And by 2040, fossil fuel consumption will still make up more than 75 percent of our energy supply compared to 80 percent today. According to these federal defendants, by 2040 our carbon dioxide emissions will at best be flatlining at dangerous levels. Make no mistake, the U.S. government has caused climate change and continues to promote a fossil fuel system that is violating the rights of these 21 young plaintiffs."
In his April decision, Judge Coffin indicated that since young people will face the brunt of global warming, they have the right to sue the government for climate justice. He 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."
"Jayden and her fellow plaintiffs will be entering the hearing Tuesday with momentum from legal victories from their peers," Our Children's Trust stated. "Aside from their own victory before Judge Coffin, they are emboldened by other youth plaintiff wins in state courts in Washington, Massachusetts and New Mexico. Not to mention other state and international legal actions underway, all with support from Our Children's Trust."
In June, plaintiff Xiuhtezcatl Martinez stopped by Real Time with Bill Maher to talk about the lawsuit and the importance of government action on climate.
"We have a right to a healthy atmosphere and [the government] is directly in violation of our public trust and of our constitutional right to a healthy atmosphere," the teenage environmental activist said. "[My generation] is calling out our leaders and reminding them they are not doing the job they are put here to do."
- Landmark U.S. Federal Climate Lawsuit — Our Children's Trust ›
- Washington state kids score huge legal win in climate change lawsuit ›
The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania dismissed the constitutional climate change lawsuit Tuesday brought by seven young plaintiffs. The court found that the plaintiffs had standing to bring their case because climate change was a substantial, direct and immediate threat to them. However, the court declined to follow Pennsylvania Supreme Court precedent that determined that Pennsylvania's constitutional Environmental Rights Amendment imposes an affirmative duty on the Commonwealth to "conserve and maintain" Pennsylvania's public natural resources for both present and future generations.
Attorney Kenneth Kristl with two of the seven youth plaintiffs, Kaia Elinich (left) and Ashley Funk (right). Our Children's Trust
The plaintiffs brought the lawsuit against Gov. Tom Wolf and six state agencies, including the Department of Environmental Protection and the Pennsylvania Environmental Quality Board. This case is one of several similar state, federal and global cases, all supported by the nonprofit Our Children's Trust and all seeking the legal right to a healthy atmosphere and stable climate.
In this case, the youth are seeking to protect their constitutional rights to clean air, pure water and other essential natural resources that their lives depend upon, but that are currently threatened by climate change. Their complaint states that government defendants are failing to fulfill their constitutional obligations by failing to adequately regulate CO2 emissions.
The suit was filed by the Environmental & Natural Resources Law Clinic, at Widener University Delaware Law School, with Associate Professor of Law and Clinic Director Kenneth Kristl as lead counsel.
"We are disappointed with the court's decision," Kristl said. "We believe the Commonwealth Court failed to consider and apply correctly the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's Robinson Township decision and the new contours for Article I, Section 27 that it carved out. We are optimistic that the Supreme Court's consideration of this matter on appeal will lead to a different result."
Ashley Funk, one of the seven plaintiffs, was recently featured on Heat of The Moment, WBEZ Chicago's long-term project about climate change. Listen to her share her story about growing up in coal country here.
"After arguing our position on June 6th, my fellow plaintiffs and I really believed that the court would rule in favor of our lawsuit—and our generation—by allowing our case to proceed," Funk said.
"With recent victories in Juliana, et al. v. United States of America, et al. and a similar lawsuit in the state of Washington, we had hope that Pennsylvania would follow suit. I am disappointed in the court's decision to uphold the preliminary objections. But I know that our case is grounded in our rights to a livable climate and so we will continue pushing this case until Pennsylvania takes adequate and measurable action to address climate change."
On behalf of youth climate activists who secured an unprecedented court order directing the Washington State Department of Ecology to issue a rule regulating greenhouse gas emissions by the end of the year, attorneys Andrea Rodgers and Julia Olson submitted comments asking the Department of Ecology to bring its proposed Clean Air Rule into compliance with the law and the court orders obtained in the case. As part of their comments, the youths presented the department with a blueprint on how to put Washington on a path towards climate stability.
Our Children's Trust
The youths' comments lay out how the Department of Ecology proposed Clean Air Rule would unlawfully allow dangerous levels of greenhouse gas emissions, ensuring infringement of the rights of young people and future generations to a livable planet under the public trust doctrine, affirmed in our watershed Washington state court case. The best available science shows that to protect Earth's natural systems on which humankind depends, long-term average global surface heating must be limited to 1 C and atmospheric carbon dioxide must be returned to 350 parts per million (ppm).
Top climate scientists and policy experts who submitted declarations for the case supporting the youths' comments have found that to achieve 350 ppm, carbon dioxide emissions must be reduced by at least eight percent annually, combined with additional carbon sequestration actions. Yet the Washington State Department of Ecology's proposed Clean Air Rule is designed to reduce the state of Washington's emissions by only one percent per year, falling far short of doing what is scientifically required for Washington to do its part to achieve climate stability.
"We cannot continue to base life and death policies on politics rather than science," Andrea Rodgers, attorney for the youths, said. "The science and the law overwhelmingly support stricter emission reductions than Ecology recommended in its proposed Clean Air Rule. This generation of policymakers is the only one that can ensure our children can grow to adulthood safely. They have the science and the power of the law behind them and we hope they will heed the call to protect the rights of young people."
The proposed Clean Air Rule regulates only a very small segment of greenhouse gas sources over a certain threshold (beginning at 100,000 metric tons of CO2 equivalent starting in 2017 and leading to 70,000 metric tons of CO2 equivalent in 2035). With this structure, the department would authorize continued emission of greenhouse gases by all entities under those thresholds.
In addition, the proposed rule illegally delays compliance for several sectors and contradicts the Department of Ecology's own findings that urgent action is needed to draw down greenhouse gas emissions. The proposed rule's compliance threshold arbitrarily stops decreasing after 2035 and relies upon a flawed state greenhouse gas reporting program.
"Inslee's proposed rule would lock in unacceptable levels of pollution and catastrophic harm to the young people of Washington," Julia Olson, executive director and chief legal counsel for Our Children's Trust, said. "By legalizing emissions at dangerous levels, this proposed rule places the public's survival at serious risk. Ecology is bound by law to 'preserve, protect and enhance the air quality for current and future generations.' We need courage and leadership right now, not half-baked plans."
This youth-led legal effort is one of several similar state, federal and international actions, all supported by Our Children's Trust, seeking the legal right to a healthy atmosphere and stable climate.