Children and young adults in the US are suing the government for their climate-unsustainable business practices and lack of action to address environmental problems, an unprecedented event in the American legal system. The group’s claim is supported by a recent ruling of Oregon Court Judge Ann Aiken who declared that a stable climate is a fundamental constitutional right of citizens.
It’s been a rough week for anyone even remotely interested in environmental issues. With the nomination of Donald Trump as the future US President, efforts to contain climate change have never looked bleaker (or smoggier, I guess). Calling the issue a ‘hoax’ or the actually funny ‘a Chinese invention’, Trump makes a stark contrast to the Obama administration’s pushes for renewables, smarter energy use, and its general feistiness about environmental protection despite strong political opposition from Republicans. Word from Trump’s White House team is that the president elect is seeking an accelerated timeline for American withdrawal not only from the Paris agreement, but also from the 1992 treaty which set the groundwork for international collaboration on global warming. Here in Marrakesh, this election’s results has caused quite a stir. People are uncertain of the future, angry that one man might undo the progress of 22 international summits.
But a move in the American legal system might give a ray of hope. On Thursday, U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken ruled in favor of a group of 21 children and young adults suing the federal government in a case known as Juliana v. United States. She denied the Government’s motion to dismiss the case, effectively setting the groundwork for court-mandated, science-backed action to curb emission levels in the country. The case will go to trial sometime in 2017 and is likely to become a major civil rights suit handled by the U.S. Supreme Court.
“I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society,” Judge Ann Aiken said.
The plaintiffs, aged 9 to 20, say climate change violates their constitutional right to life, liberty, and prosperity by impacting or destroying public trust assets such as air, water, or shorelines. By aiming for short-term profit, convenience, and most of all the concerns of this generation over future ones — by allowing fossil fuel development or encouraging the industry through massive subsidies for example — the overall actions of the federal government worsen this impact, they say. Even worse, they accuse the government and several companies for engaging in this behavior for more than five decades, knowing full well how damaging it could become.
Kelsey Juliana, an Oregon local and lead plaintiff, says the algae blooms we’ve seen recently harm the water she needs to drink, while drought kills the wild salmon she needs for food. Colorado local and environmental activist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez claims that the increase in wildfires and extreme floods directly jeopardizes his safety. Other plaintiffs include farming families who’ve seen crops wither and fail, asthma patients, or Louisiana locals who’ve seen their homes overran by sewage in the recent floods. The suit holds that these and a host of others issues are powered in part by shifting climate patterns, and could have been prevented by a government pushing for a zero-carbon economy. By failing to act on the issue, the U.S. government has thus violated the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.
“This is going to be the trial of our lifetimes,” said 16-year-old Martinez in a statement.
Judge Aiken’s ruling is the first legal event where climate damage has been labeled unconstitutional. She agrees with the plaintiffs’ claim that the sum of federal action and inaction on the issue has “so profoundly damaged our home planet that they threaten plaintiffs’ fundamental constitutional rights to life and liberty”. And, given “deep” governmental resistance to change, Aiken considers that the courts have to step in as guardians of the public’s best interest. Drawing on the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, she wrote:
“I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society. Just as marriage is the foundation of the family, a stable climate system is quite literally the foundation of society, without which there would be neither civilization nor progress.”
“To hold otherwise would be to say that the Constitution affords no protection against a government’s knowing decision to poison the air its citizens breathe or the water its citizens drink.”
Change from the little ones
While it may be unpleasant to acknowledge, the U.S. is the country most responsible for global warming — some 25% of total emissions since the industrial revolution were released here. The country is also an economical, technological, and scientific powerhouse. It has always been a beacon by which other political players tailor their own actions. All this currently makes the U.S. the most well-equipped entity to make a difference on the issue of climate change.
However. With the recent nomination of Myron Ebell, a widely-touted climate denier, as head of the Environmental Protection Agency transition team, it’s likely that CO2 emissions in the country will remain flat or even increase under the Trump administration and possibly a few decades after due to his policies. As the biggest player changes sides mid-game, it’s unlikely that the world will stay under that the 2 degree Celsius warming limit agreed on in the Paris accord.
The suit is currently against President Barack Obama, as well as several parts of the executive branch. Donald Trump will automatically become a named defendant when he assumes the presidency on Jan. 20, Julia Olson, lead counsel for the plaintiffs and executive director of Oregon-based nonprofit Our Children’s Trust which helped bring the lawsuit, told the CNN. While Aiken’s ruling means that odds for governmental-backed climate action have greatly increased, the plaintiffs hope to reach a settlement with the Obama administration before the president elect assumes office. A showdown in the Supreme Court will likely end in the plaintiffs’ favor, Olson believes, but lawyers of the Trump administration will probably drag the process out as long as possible, blowing any chance of stabilizing the climate clean out of the water.
Considering the likely course governmental action is going to take in the future, this might be the single most significant court ruling in the history of the United States. Where the U.S. leads others will follow, and right now it has the means to lead astray, or true. Judge Aiken gave these kids a shot, even if tiny, at steadying the wheel — and for all our sakes, the people here at COP, those at home and abroad, even Trump’s, I hope they’ll make it on time.