21 Youth Are Suing the U.S. Government About Climate Change

In a recent move to battle climate change, twenty one youth ranging in age from ten to twenty-one years are suing the U.S. government. The case, Juliana vs U.S. Government, argues that the U.S. government’s support of fossil fuel industries violates the youths’ fifth amendment rights to life, liberty and property. The plaintiffs accuse the government of discrimination, citing that those who have the most to lose in terms of climate change are also those with the least amount of influence on the issue.

“My generation is going to be inheriting the crisis we see all around us today. We are standing up not only for the environment and the Earth and the atmosphere but for the rights we have to live in a healthy, just and sustainable world,” said fifteen-year-old Xiuhtezcat Tonatiuh, one of the twenty-one plaintiffs.

The ultimate purpose of the complaint is to compel the U.S. government to fashion a realistic plan for reducing fossil fuel emissions and to act on it; the plaintiff’s goal for carbon dioxide levels is 350 parts per million. While the Obama Administration did take many steps to limit the rate of global warming, the plaintiffs argue that the efforts were simply too weak; something more concrete and effective must be formulated.

The main concern raised in the case what constitutes a public trust. While the federal courts did not reject the atmosphere as a public trust, it focused its attention more on the territorial sea, as the U.S. government controls the land by the coastline. The court held that the government has harmed public trust assets by failing to prevent ocean acidification and rising temperatures, concluding that the U.S. government does have obligations to public trust.

In November 2016, the Federal District Court of Oregon denied a motion to dismiss the case, citing that it was unique to other environmental cases because it “alleges that defendants’ actions and inactions—whether or not they violate any specific statutory duty—have so profoundly damaged our home planet that they threaten plaintiffs’ fundamental constitutional rights to life and liberty.”

As expected, the movement has experienced opposition. A U.S. Department of Justice attorney argued that, “There simply is no constitutional right to a pollution-free environment…The federal courts are not a proper forum in which to raise generalized grievances about federal policies.”

Other opposition questions whether the lawsuit,  if it were to win, would even be effective. Jim Huffman, dean emeritus of the Lewis and Clark Law School, raises the point that a decrease in U.S. carbon emission might not affect the global concentration of carbon dioxide.

The Trump administration has petitioned to dismiss the case. A ruling is expected any day now.

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