A group of teens from across the country have taken legal action against the United States. The group of 21 is supported by Our Children’s Trust, a non-profit organization committed to combating the effects of climate change through legal action. The teens are suing the government on the grounds that various members of the government, from President Obama to Anthony Foxx, the Secretary of Transportation, have failed to protect their generation’s right to life, liberty, and property, and have failed to protect essential public trust resources.
Legal action against climate change is a growing trend. Individuals in Pakistan, New Zealand, Peru, and the United States have attempted to use judicial intervention to abate climate change and hold governments and corporations accountable for their role in it. In 2015, a Dutch court ruled in favor of a group of citizen co-plaintiffs to require the Dutch government to reduce emissions 25% below 1990 emissions by 2020. That court stated goal of a 14-17% reduction set by the government was unlawful in light of Dutch international commitments.
Our Children’s Trust is breaking new ground in the United States. In April 2016, Thomas M. Coffin, a federal magistrate judge, ruled that the lawsuit should move forward. In doing so, the court denied motions from both the Obama administration and fossil fuels giants to dismiss the case, arguing that neither the Constitution nor the Public Trust Doctrine give the courts power or reason to address the public interest in limiting CO2 emissions. The magistrate judge’s decision now moves up to the District Court for review by U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken. Oral arguments are scheduled for September.
If the lawsuit is allowed to move forward, the government could be forced to take more aggressive measures to curb the effects of climate change. The plaintiffs specifically call for a decrease in subsidizing fossil fuels and a national plan to implement renewable energy sources to restore to below 350 ppm global atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, which currently stand above 400 ppm.
The lawsuit raises several interesting legal questions in connection with the claimed right of citizens to enforce government action on climate change. Does the constitution create a federal duty to protect its citizens against climate change? Can the government be held accountable for a failure to do so? There’s a long road ahead through the court system to find the answers.
Our Children’s Trust has brought or supports a number of pending cases on the state, national, and international levels as well. We will continue to track efforts for climate action as they move through the courts.