- The Children's Climate lawsuit

The climate change lawsuit the Trump administration is desperate to stop going to trial. (March 2017) A groundbreaking climate lawsuit, brought against the federal government by 21 children, has been hailed by environmentalists as a bold new strategy to press for climate action in the United States. But the Trump administration, which has pledged to undo Barack Obama’s climate regulations, is doing its best to make sure the case doesn’t get far. The Trump administration this week filed a motion to overturn a ruling by a federal judge  in November 2016 that cleared the lawsuit for trial, and filed a separate motion to delay trial preparation until that appeal is considered. The lawsuit, the first of its kind, argues the federal government has violated the constitutional right of the 21 plaintiffs to a healthy climate system. Environmental groups say the case, if it’s successful, could force even a reluctant government to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and take other measures to counter warming. link

Latest news:

July 27 2017: Lawsuit temporarily paused. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has temporarily halted the lawsuit against the Trump administration following the administration’s petition for a rare review of the district court’s decision to allow the case to move forward. The decision merely pauses proceedings in the case until further notice while the Ninth Circuit considers the request for review ; however such reviews are rarely granted. link

June 29 2017: Trial date set for Juliana climate lawsuit. The trial will start on February 5, 2018, in federal district court in Eugene, Oregon, with Judge Ann Aiken. The judge also agreed to let the country’s biggest fossil fuel lobbies withdraw from the case, which may shield them from having to turn over documents.  link

June 9 2017: A federal judge has denied the Trump administration’s appeal in a climate change lawsuit, paving the way for the unprecedented suit to go to trial. link

Origins of the Juliana lawsuit

The federal lawsuit, Juliana et al v. United States, (also known as the Children’s Climate Change Lawsuit) was brought in August 2015 on behalf of 21 youths, aged 9 to 21 (2016), over the federal government's alleged failure to rein in fossil fuel development and address climate change.
On November 10, 2016 Judge Ann Aiken in Eugene, Oregon issued an opinion and order denying the U.S. government and fossil fuel industry’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit. The case is now headed for trial in November 2017. Judge Aiken said, “Exercising my ‘reasoned judgment,’ I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society.”

What is the lawsuit about?

The Children’s Climate Change lawsuit is based on a legal concept called the public trust doctrine, which argues that the government holds resources such as land, water or fisheries in trust for its citizens. Climate litigators contend that the government is a trustee of the atmosphere, too. The doctrine's power flows from the Fifth, Ninth and Tenth Amendments, and the Vesting, Posterity and Nobility Clauses of the Constitution, the plaintiffs maintain. The plaintiffs in Juliana argue that the federal government has known for at least 50 years that combustion of fossil fuels adds carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and damages the climate. Because it chose to take actions to promote and subsidize fossil fuel use and the resulting greenhouse gas emissions, the government violated their right to protection from environmental degradation under the trust doctrine, the suit alleges. 

Explaining the fossil fuel industry involvement in lawsuit

The American Petroleum Institute (API) the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM)   and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) joined the federal government's side as intervenors, saying the case was a "direct threat" to their businesses. In May 2017, the industry groups fought to have the case dismissed. If allowed to withdraw now, they could avoid releasing documents and answering questions under oath. The country's most powerful fossil fuel lobbies have asked a federal judge for permission to withdraw from a groundbreaking climate change lawsuit, a stark about-face after the groups voluntarily intervened in the case two years ago and fought assiduously to have it dismissed. The intervenors joined in part because of their concerns that the Justice Department under President Obama might not mount a sufficiently vigorous defense. NAM Senior Vice President and General Counsel Linda Kelly indicated that her group seeks to leave the suit in part because its interests align more closely with the Trump administration

It is unusual for intervenors to seek to withdraw from a case. API and AFPM filed withdrawal motions in federal district court in Eugene, Oregon, on May 18 2017, and NAM filed a similar motion four days later. It is unclear when federal magistrate judge Thomas Coffin will rule on their requests.   

The intervenors and the Justice Department have repeatedly filed motions to have the case dismissed. But federal judges have ruled against them, and the case could go to trial as early as November. In the interim, lawyers for both sides could seek documents from one another and question people under oath through what is known as the discovery process.

Julia Olson, one of the lead counsels for the plaintiffs and executive director of the environmental group, Our Children’s Trust, said the industry lobbyists are seeking to withdraw in order to avoid handing over potentially damaging information. 

Court challenges overseas and in U.S.

In 2015, environmental plaintiffs in the Netherlands, South Africa and Pakistan, as well as Massachusetts and Washington state, won similar human rights or constitutional cases that force authorities to more aggressively cut carbon emissions.  

June 2015: Dutch government ordered to cut carbon emissions in landmark ruling. link
March 2017: How climate change battles are increasingly being fought, and won, in court - link   
May 2016: Children win another climate change legal case in Massachusetts supreme court - link


Our Children's Trust: full coverage  -  link
Inside Climate News analysis - link
November 2016 Judge Aiken ruling - pdf

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