In the first lawsuit to involve a planet, Judge Thomas Coffin of the United States Federal District Court in Eugene, Oregon, ruled on Friday in favor of twenty-one plaintiffs, ages 8 to 19, on behalf of future generations of Americans in a landmark constitutional climate change case brought against the Federal Government and the Fossil Fuel Industry.
The lawsuit alleges that the Federal Government is violating the Plaintiffs’ constitutional and public trust rights by promoting the use of fossil fuels. The Complaint explains that, for over fifty years, the United States Government and the Fossil Fuel Industry have known that carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels causes global warming and dangerous climate change, and that continuing to burn fossil fuels destabilizes the climate system.
Judge Coffin wrote:
“The debate about climate change and its impact has been before various political bodies for some time now. Plaintiffs give this debate justiciability by asserting harms that befall or will befall them personally and to a greater extent than older segments of society. It may be that eventually the alleged harms, assuming the correctness of plaintiffs’ analysis of the impacts of global climate change, will befall all of us. But the intractability of the debates before Congress and state legislatures and the alleged valuing of short-term economic interest despite the cost to human life, necessitates a need for the courts to evaluate the constitutional parameters of the action or inaction taken by the government. This is especially true when such harms have an alleged disparate impact on a discrete class of society.” This is legalese for “global warming may eventually hurt all of us, but it will hurt our children and grandchildren the most, so they have the right to sue.”
Most importantly, the judge unequivocally rejected all arguments raised by the Federal Government and the Fossil Fuel Industry in their Motions to Dismiss that sought to deny the youth their fundamental rights under the constitution and public trust doctrine, and claimed that the government has no duty to protect essential natural resources, such as air and oceans.
Instead, the court found that the federal government is indeed subject to the public trust doctrine. Public trust doctrine asserts that the government is a trustee of the natural resources that we depend on for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. For over 200 years the courts have affirmed this concept in various ways.
Championed by Professor Mary Christina Wood in the Law School at the University of Oregon under the idea of Atmospheric Trust Litigation, these lawsuits claim that a government elected by the people and for the people has a duty to protect the natural systems required for the people’s survival. According to Wood, if both the executive and legislative branches fail in that duty, then the judicial branch must intervene.
A surprising number of Atmospheric Trust Litigation lawsuits and petitions have been brought by students, and advocated by the Oregon-based nonprofit Our Children’s Trust, in both domestic and international courts. And they’ve been more successful than anyone expected. Other groups supporting these suits include the Western Environmental Law Center, Plant-for-the-Planet, and Climate Change for Families.
The next step in this case is a review of Judge Coffin’s decision by Judge Ann Aiken, another judge in the same Federal Court.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Philip Gregory noted that :
“This decision is one of the most significant in our nation’s history. The Court upheld our claims that the federal government intensified the danger to our plaintiffs’ lives, liberty and property. Judge Coffin decided our Complaint will move forward and put climate science squarely in front of the federal courts. The next step is for the Court to order our government to cease jeopardizing the climate system for present and future generations.”
The Court’s decision also upheld the youth Plaintiffs’ claims in the Fifth and Ninth Amendments “by denying them protections afforded to previous generations and by favoring the short-term economic interests of certain citizens.” Now these young plaintiffs have the right to prove that the government’s role in harming them has been knowing and deliberate for more than 50 years.
Dr. James Hansen, famed climatologist and also a plaintiff in this case, said, “Judge Coffin in effect declares that the voice of children and future generations, supported by the relevant science, must be heard. We will now proceed to prove our claims. It is perhaps not too late for serious action to preserve a viable climate system that will be required by our posterity. If you want to join the fight to save the planet, to save creation for your grandchildren, there is no more effective step you could take than becoming an active member of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby.”
In January 2016, defendant status in this case was granted to three fossil fuel industry trade associations, representing nearly all of the world’s largest fossil fuel companies, who called the case “a direct, substantial threat to our businesses.”
On March 9, 2016 the court heard oral arguments from attorneys for two hours before hundreds of people supporting the youth. Hundreds of other people waited in lines to enter the courthouse. In an unprecedented move for a federal court, oral argument was streamed via video feed into three additional courtrooms in Eugene and one in Portland.
But the issue was most eloquently stated by one of the teenage plaintiffs herself, “The future of our generation is at stake,” said 16-year-old plaintiff Victoria Barrett.
“People label our generation as dreamers, but hope is not the only tool we have. I am a teenager. I want to do what I love and live a life full of opportunities. I want the generation that follows to have the same chance. I absolutely refuse to let our government’s harmful action, corporate greed, and the pure denial of climate science get in the way of that. If anything, I’m going to use my positive energy to show my government that I won’t let my world stop for them.”
“Our generation will continue to be a force for the world.”