The efforts by Oregon Governor Kate and a Democratically controlled legislature to pass a measure to limit greenhouse gas emissions may be overshadowed by a more sweeping climate lawsuit initiated in 2016 largely on behalf of young Oregonians.
The so-called Climate Kids have filed a lawsuit claiming a constitutional right “to life, liberty and property” under a government-backed “climate system capable of sustaining human life.” The lawsuit bears the name of Kelsey Juliana, who is a now a 22-year-old University of Oregon student. Juliana was interviewed on 60 Minutes over the weekend and declared, "My generation and all the generations to come have everything to lose if we don't act on climate change right now."
The longshot lawsuit, initially considered fanciful, has survived five attempts to block it in US District Court in Oregon, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court. Despite efforts by the fossil fuel industry and the Trump administration, the lawsuit continues to move toward an actual trial.
The Climate Kids and their Oregon-based attorneys insist they have compiled what they believe is overwhelming evidence. A press release from Julia Olson, executive director and chief legal counsel of Our Children’s Trust, accuses the “federal government of creating a national energy system that causes climate change, is depriving them of their constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property and [failing] to protect essential public trust resources. We look forward to presenting the scientific evidence of the harms and dangers these children face as a result of the actions their government has taken to cause the climate crisis.”
Olson told 60 Minutes the evidence is staggering. The Supreme Court, in its unsigned decision to let the lawsuit proceed, called its breadth “striking.”
Juliana is one of 21 youth plaintiffs who range in age from 11 to 22 years old. The ages of the plaintiffs are welded to the core of the constitutional argument. One pleading on behalf of the youths said, “As the government continues to neglect the consequences of climate change, they say, their future selves – and their future children – will suffer.” Eleven of the plaintiffs live in Oregon. Other plaintiffs hail from Colorado, Florida, New York, Hawaii, Arizona, Alaska, Washington, Pennsylvania and Louisiana.
An extensive list of supporters has accreted as challenges to the lawsuit have proceeded. They included well known environmental groups such as Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, interfaith organizations and legal scholars. The League of Women Voters submitted an amicus brief that asserted it is a proper role for courts to act as a check and balance on political branches to address “irreversible impacts” that affect younger generations of Americans and generations to follow.
Two of the underlying legal arguments that have emerged in Juliana v. United States involve “atmospheric trust litigation” based on a public trust doctrine, which has been applied to protect shorelines and other valuable natural resources.
Ultimately, the goal of the Climate Kids lawsuit are environmental policies that would accelerate efforts to reduce damaging greenhouse gas emissions and eventually abandon a carbon-based economy. Opponents variously argue that is an unattainable objective in any near-term time frame. Political opponents claim the lawsuit, if successful, would subordinate climate policy set by the President and Congress to a court ruling.
Assuming the lawsuit actually makes it to trial, the evidence presented could mark a turning point in broader public acceptance of the reality of climate change and the need for urgent action. The trial is likely to be linked with the Green New Deal that has been introduced in Congress and to propel more state environmental activism, especially in states like Oregon where the trial would be held and covered extensively.