A federal district court judge just granted 21 youth plaintiffs the right to sue the federal government over climate change.
In an unprecedented decision, U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken ruled in favor of a group of 9 to 20-year-olds who are suing the federal government for their constitutional right to a clean environment. Judge Aiken denied the federal government and several big energy companies' motion to dismiss, paving the way for the group of children to become environmentalists' best hope following Inauguration Day.
The lawsuit specifically targets the United States, president Barack Obama, and executive agencies of the federal government, alleging that for more than 50 years they have known about the dangers of emitting carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels that "significantly endanger plaintiffs, with the damage persisting for millenia."
"What is historic is that Judge Aiken has recognized, for the first time, that the United States constitution protects as fundamental the right of all people to a climate system that's capable of supporting human life," Julia Olsen, the lead counsel on the case, told A Plus. "But our government has been systematically destroying our climate system for over five decades. Knowingly. And that's a fundamental violation of my clients' Fifth Amendment rights."
Photo: Andrea Willingham
If they are successful, the plaintiffs' plan is for the court to force the federal government into incrementally phasing out the use of fossil fuels while introducing a climate-safe energy infrastructure. The group emphasizes that climatologists, economic policy experts and those with knowledge of green energy technology believe that it's plausible to create jobs and clean up the energy sector simultaneously, and to do it by the middle part of the century.
Central to the case is the idea that the United States is responsible for much of the damage done to the climate globally. 25 percent of emissions since the Industrial Revolution were caused by the U.S., and projections regarding the outcome if we don't drastically reduce emissions now are nothing short of catastrophic.
Olson, who is also the executive director of Our Children's Trust, the Oregon-based nonprofit that organized the lawsuit, focuses on the segment of the Fifth Amendment that guarantees the protection of "life, liberty and property."
For instance, one of the teens involved in the case lives in coastal Florida. He is seeing sea levels rise and an increasing frequency of storms that will eventually destroy his home. Another is from Louisiana, where there has been extensive flooding. Olson believes that with expert testimony, she can prove that sea level rise is a direct result of the federal government's energy regulations and infrastructure. If she can prove that, she believes she can pin them into presenting serious energy reform to address climate change.
She dismisses the idea that the case is a long shot.
"It's only a hail mary because the climate system is in such a crisis, we're in a state of emergency," Olson said. "But it's not a hail mary if you believe in our Constitution and you believe in democracy. If our constitution means anything, it means people have a right to their personal security and their lives and their liberties and their property."
The favorable Nov. 10 ruling is raising a lot of eyebrows. Several law experts agree it is a monumental and significant victory. Olson was quick to compare it to Brown v. Board of Education, a youth-led lawsuit that desegregated schools in the South. She also issued a reminder that in a single day the Supreme Court legalized marriage for everyone across the entire nation, and that, in California, a group of prisoners won a challenge against the state for violating their constitutional rights.
Jacob Lebel, a 19-year-old from Roseburg, Oregon, is named as a plaintiff in the case. He got involved when a neighbor near his farm in Oregon — one he'd worked with to protest a pipeline construction nearby — filled him in about the lawsuit. In a phone call with A Plus, he emphasized the significance of the case being led by a group of 9- to 20-year-olds.
"The kids who are 8 or 9 years old are going to see the full effects of climate change in their lifetime," Lebel said. "We're going past the platitudes and bringing those arguments into an actual legal context. We're making it so if they accept our arguments, which they really have to, then they are compelled to put their money and efforts where their mouth is."
Photo: Andrea Willingham
Lebel has a point. The scientific community is nearly unanimous in its understanding of climate change, and the evidence that it is being caused by humans is only mounting. Global temperatures in the last decade have hit all-time highs, and the frequency of disastrous weather events like droughts, floods and tropical storms seems to be increasing. With the support of scientific goliaths like NASA, it's tough to imagine an expert testimony that would dismiss the allegations being brought against the U.S. government.
"One thing people and reporters get wrong when they talk about this is that we're suing over government inaction," Olson said. "That's not right. We're suing because the federal government — for more than five decades — has knowingly facilitated and put into place an energy system that is dependent on fossil fuels."
In the context of this year's election, the stakes of the youth's case couldn't be higher. After President Obama became a global leader on tackling climate change, helping to bind 195 countries to the first-ever universal global climate deal known as the Paris climate agreement, president-elect Trump has threatened to undo it all. He even at one point suggested that he believed climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese, although he later walked that claim back.
But in an odd twist of fate, the president-elect's victory could benefit the group's ultimate goals. For one, if Trump pulls out of the climate deal or pulls more regulations off the table in the energy sector, it'll only help prove Olson's point that the federal government is doing damage. Secondly, Trump, his administration and his party can't willfully tell a lie while presenting evidence in a court of law, an offense commonly known as known as perjury.
"Climate denialism, which runs rampant in the republican party, cannot survive in the court of law," Olson said. "Donald Trump cannot come into the court room and say that climate change is a hoax or it was created by the Chinese... because it won't hold up. If president-elect Trump takes that approach in defending that case, it only makes my job easier."
Interestingly, the Obama administration has already conceded many facts about climate change presented by Olson's team. Which raises another potentially explosive caveat that Lebel is hoping for: the Obama administration could actually come to the table and try to settle the case before he leaves office, which would be an unorthodox but effective way to preserve his legacy on climate change. It's not clear if a settlement is likely or even what it would look like, but the potential for a court decree speaks to how much power the case actually holds.
"That would safeguard Obama's climate legacy as well, because it would mean the court overseeing a national science-based climate recovery plan being put into place should we win or come to a settlement," Lebel said. "That would put at least some check on a Trump presidency because he'd have to deal with the judicial branch. That's really my hope and what I'm pushing for."
But Lebel is hopeful even if they have to go to trial with a Trump administration. As Olson noted, it'd force his administration to put their alleged views on climate change on record in a court of law, where they believe there would be little chance of them holding up. Should the case proceed to the Supreme Court, even after a Trump appointment, there's still five justices Lebel believes would rule in their favor and serve as a complete check on Trump's plans to pull back on clean energy policies.
Another plaintiff in the case described the story as being under-reported. The case has been written about in The New York Times and Slate, but larger television networks are yet to pick it up. But to anyone involved, and to environmentalists, lawyers and scientists paying attention, there's no doubt that this case could be one that changes the course of U.S. and global history.
"We're on the road to changing everything," Olson said.
You can watch an interview with one of the plaintiffs below.
Cover photo: Andrea Willingham