In another surprising victory for children suing the government over climate change, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court last Friday found in favor of four youth plaintiffs against the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.
The Court found that the DEP was not complying with its legal obligation to reduce the State’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and ordered the agency to “promulgate regulations that address…greenhouse gas emissions, impose a limit on emissions that may be released…and set limits that decline on an annual basis.”
This case is one of several similar cases in federal district courts in Oregon and Washington, and in the state courts of North Carolina, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Colorado. All of these legal cases are supported by Our Children’s Trust, that seeks the legal right of our youth to a healthy atmosphere and stable climate in the future.
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. And that is what these cases are all about. Not that the judiciary should fix this problem, but that the executive and legislative branches are not. Whether or not one thinks the government can actually affect sufficient change to stop such a global effect, these cases just call on the government to try. And to try based on the latest science.
At the heart of this particular case, is the Massachusetts Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA). Signed into law in 2008, this Act created a framework for reducing state GHG emissions by 25% over those of 1990 by 2020, and an 80% reduction by 2050.
DEP has seemed reluctant to comply with the GWSA, and the youths filed this case arguing that the DEP has failed to promulgate the regulations required by Section 3(d) of the GWSA establishing declining annual levels of GHGs. Massachusetts is not on track to meet its 2020 greenhouse gas reduction goal of 25% below 1990 levels – a problem that is directly related to DEP’s failure to issue the required regulations. The plaintiffs are working to ensure that Massachusetts complies with the law and does everything necessary to protect their constitutional and public trust rights to clean air, a healthy atmosphere, and a stable climate system.
What these youth cases seem to be telling us is that we are not being as aggressive and as smart as we need to be to change our energy mix, and we do not seem to have a sufficient sense of urgency. But then, most of us over thirty will be dead by the time the worst effects occur.
And that’s the reason these youths are being so vocal – they’ll still be alive.