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The Youth Climate Lawsuit Heats Up

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Illustration by Ishita Dharap

Recently an ongoing lawsuit was brought back to the limelight. In the case of Juliana v. United States, 21 children and young people are suing the United States government for failing to take action on climate change. They originally filed their case in Oregon in 2015, but it has been in legal limbo for 3 years as the federal government, first under Obama and now under Trump, attempts to have it dismissed.

In October, the Trump administration filed an emergency request for a stay with the Supreme Court, which the Court denied on Nov. 2. Shortly thereafter, the Oregon Appeals Court put the case on temporary hold. The Oregon District Court will eventually hear the case, but a new date has not been set.

The plaintiffs argue that the U.S. government has known for over 50 years that fossil fuels cause climate change, but have continued to let them dominate energy consumption. In doing so, they assert, the government has allowed harm to come to the environment. In failing to protect natural resources, the government has failed to protect the “public trust” for future generations.

If the case is successful, the court will order to the federal government to take action to reduce the harm of climate change. The plaintiffs seek a cap on carbon dioxide emissions, a government mandate to lower them to a certain level by a certain date, and a climate recovery plan for the nation.

Both the Trump administration and the Obama administration have attempted to have the case dismissed in the lower courts. Their basic argument is that the suit is without legal precedent and an overreach for the judicial branch, constituting a potential violation of the separation of powers and undermining the authority of Congress and federal agencies.

In a brief to the Supreme Court, Solicitor General Noel J. Francisco claims that the plaintiffs “seek nothing less than a complete transformation of the American energy system — including the abandonment of fossil fuels — ordered by a single district court at the behest of ‘twenty-one children and youth.’”

Who are the plaintiffs?

In 2015, 21 youths, ages 11-22, brought the suit with backing from the organization Our Children’s Trust. Their core argument, as stated on the Trust’s website, is that “through the government’s affirmative actions that cause climate change, it has violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources.”

The named plaintiff is Kelsey Juliana of Eugene, Oregon, who is now 22. She decided to sue because she cares about the wellbeing of the environment for future generations, she told Oregon Public Broadcasting. “I have so much faith and hope in young people, and I truly see them as leaders,” she said. “Not ‘future leaders.’ I don’t like that term. Youth aren’t the future. We are the now.”

There are 20 other youth plaintiffs in the case, plus the organizational plaintiff Earth Guardians. Earth Guardians is a global political organization for youth activism, primarily focusing their efforts on environmental issues like energy sources, plastic waste, and fracking. Other Oregon youth in the suit include Sahara Valentine, 14, Zealand Bell, 14, Avery McRae, 11, Hazel Van Ummersen, 14, and Kiran Oommen, 21.

Legal History of the Case

The suit was first filed in 2015, but has been delayed repeatedly by White House intervention — first from the Obama administration, and now from the Trump administration. Originally, in Oregon, three fossil fuel companies were also defendants (National Association of Manufacturers, the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, and the American Petroleum Institute). They also intervened to have the case dismissed. In 2016, U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken issued an opinion and order denying these motions to dismiss in 2016.

In 2017, the fossil fuel companies were released as defendants, and a date was scheduled for the case to be heard in the Oregon District Court. The Trump administration quickly petitioned and ordered a stop to the case. It was rescheduled for October 2018. Numerous “stays” were requested, rejected, and re-filed by the Trump administration.

Ahead of the October 2018 trial date, the Trump administration filed an emergency request with the Supreme Court to shut the trial down. On Nov. 2nd, the Supreme Court refused the request for a stay. In their order, the Court stated that a stay is granted under either of two circumstances: “a fair prospect that a majority of the Court will vote to grant mandamus,” or “a likelihood that irreparable harm will result from the denial of a stay.” Finding the government’s case met neither criteria, they denied the emergency stay. This permitted the case to proceed in Oregon.

The case was almost immediately put on hold again. On Nov. 8, the appeals court granted the Trump administration’s motion for a temporary stay. The case will proceed, but a date has not yet been set.

Future of the Suit

Though back in legal limbo, the plaintiffs remain optimistic. “We’ve been confident throughout this case that we would get to trial, and I believe we will get to trial,” Julia Olson, attorney for the plaintiffs and executive director of Our Children’s Trust, told The Washington Post.

“We have overcome everything the government has thrown at us. It is not luck,” she added, “it is the strength of the case and the strength of the evidence and the strength of the legal arguments we are making.”

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