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Kids Get Day in Court, Accuse State for Failing to Take Climate Action

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Plaintiffs celebrate a temporary win at a hearing in November 2015. Photo credit: Sara Bernard

Judge Hollis Hill ruled Monday that the youths who sued the Department of Ecology for failing to take action on climate change can again move forward, now with a constitutional climate rights claim that adds the state of Washington and Gov. Jay Inslee as defendants. The court granted the youth's request "due to the emergent need for coordinated science based action by the state of Washington to address climate change before efforts to do so are too costly and too late."

"It is time for these youth to have the opportunity to address their concerns in a court of law, concerns raised under statute and under the state and federal constitution," reads Judge Hill's order.

The ruling follows a November hearing at which eight petitioners between the ages of 12 and 16 asked the court to find the Department of Ecology in contempt for failing to fulfill orders from April 2016 and November 2015, to protect the constitutional rights of young people and future generations to a stable climate.

Judge Hill denied the contempt motion because the Department of Ecology met the court's procedural deadline to issue the Clean Air Rule, but granted the youths request to add claims that the state of Washington and Gov. Inslee violated the Washington state constitution and the public trust doctrine so the youths will "have their day in court." The ruling now paves the way for the youth to prove "their government has failed and continues to fail to protect them from global warming" and get the full remedy they seek against the state and Gov. Inslee.

Judge Hill's decision comes on the heels of the Department of Ecology making recommendations for new legislative greenhouse gas emissions limits for Washington state that top U.S. climate scientists say would lead to catastrophic levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide. The limits endorsed by the Department of Ecology, carbon dioxide levels of 450 parts per million (ppm) and warming of 2 C, are not based on science and will not protect the youths' fundamental rights.

Today's best available science concludes 350 ppm and long-term heating of no more than 1 C with a maximum peak of 1.5 C are the best standards. The 2 C number many governments rely upon in setting emissions targets was arbitrarily selected over a decade ago as a political compromise, and was never intended to be a science-based target.

"All these kids want is the opportunity to present the science to the court because the government leaders of today have failed to implement climate policies that scientists and experts say are needed to protect the rights of young people and future generations," said Andrea Rodgers, the Western Environmental Law Center attorney who represents the youths.

"The climate crisis is not easy to solve, but Washington cannot continue to take actions and pursue policies that lock in dangerous levels of carbon dioxide emissions."

Judge Hill's order cited U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken's Nov. 10 decision in Juliana v. U.S., that rejected all arguments to dismiss the federal climate lawsuit brought by 21 youths against the U.S. and the fossil fuel industry:

"[T]hat where a complaint alleges government action is affirmative and substantially damaging the climate system in a way that will cause human deaths, shorten human lifespans, result in widespread damage to property, threaten human food sources, and dramatically alter the planet's ecosystem, it states a claim for due process violation."

Juliana v. U.S. is on track for trial in 2017, with defendants including President-elect Donald Trump's administration and the fossil fuel industry. Now, the administrations of President-elect Trump and Gov. Inslee face trials in separate courtrooms resulting from youth-based lawsuits simply seeking to stop government from exacerbating climate change and instead develop and implement plans for climate recovery based on science.

In addition to the Washington state and federal cases, Our Children's Trust supports legal actions in several other states as well as internationally, all seeking to secure the legal rights of future generations to a safe climate.

"Courts are increasingly recognizing the urgent need for science-based climate action by governments and putting on trial the lack of political will to address the crisis that most threatens our children," said Julia Olson, executive director of Our Children's Trust.

"Significantly, our co-equal third branch of government is stepping in to protect the constitutional rights of young people before it is too late to act."

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