As a record-breaking heat wave boiled the world in July, the Biden administration argued that the United States Constitution doesn’t guarantee the right to a liveable planet in a recent court filing, newly unveiled documents show.
According to court records obtained this week by The Lever, the Department of Justice asserted that “there is no constitutional right to a stable climate system,” saying that the recognition of a right to a stable climate is “nothing like any fundamental right ever recognized by the Supreme Court.” Officials went on to argue that, because the harmful effects of the climate crisis are so generalized, the Supreme Court could not recognize the rights of individuals facing its impacts.
The administration claimed this in a court filing seeking to get a landmark youth climate lawsuit, Juliana v. United States, dismissed. Juliana was filed in 2015 by 21 young plaintiffs seeking to establish a constitutional guarantee to a livable climate. It’s one of the most prominent climate lawsuits in history, and could be monumental for the climate movement if the plaintiffs are successful.
In June, a federal judge ruled the case could go to trial after Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts previously halted the trial for the case in 2018, only days before it was slated to begin. The June ruling allowed plaintiffs to amend their complaint to remove a request for a change in federal policy, narrowing the case to their argument that continued reliance on fossil fuels is unconstitutional.
In her decision, District Court Judge Ann Aiken wrote, “It is a foundational doctrine that when government conduct catastrophically harms American citizens, the judiciary is constitutionally required to perform its independent role and determine whether the challenged conduct, not exclusively committed to any branch by the Constitution, is unconstitutional.”
The Juliana plaintiffs’ fight will likely be buoyed by the recent landmark win in Montana, where a District Court judge ruled this week that the state Constitution guarantees youth plaintiffs the right to a “clean and healthful environment” — one without the ruinous effects of fossil fuels and the climate crisis. The case, Held v. Montana, is the first constitutional climate lawsuit to go to trial.
The July filing by the DOJ is just the latest in a series of aggressive actions under both Democratic and Republican administrations attempting to kill or stall the Juliana case. It’s also the latest example of the Biden administration refusing to act on the climate crisis.
“It is deeply disheartening to see the Biden Administration claim that Americans have ‘no constitutional right to a stable climate,’” Julia Olson, executive director of Our Children’s Trust and lead counsel on the case, told The Lever.
“When President Biden ran for office, he promised America’s youth that he would take bold action to combat climate change, but instead the United States is leading the world on producing fossil fuels, the very thing that is furthering climate change,” Olson continued. “Instead of fighting these young people at every turn, the U.S. Department of Justice should let youth have their day in court.”