As global temperature continues to rise — with 2016 slated to set a new high for the third consecutive year — young climate activists are rising to the occasion and breaking new legal ground. Finally, a landmark youth-led climate change lawsuit may move forward to trial.
On November 10, 2016, US District Court Judge Ann Aiken ruled in favor of 21 youth plaintiffs suing the federal government over its inadequate action to prevent anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD).
“It’s clear Judge Aiken gets what’s at stake for us,” said 17-year-old plaintiff Victoria Barrett, from White Plains, New York. “Our planet and our generation don’t have time to waste. If we continue on our current path, my school in Manhattan will be underwater in 50 years.”
Judge Aiken rejected defendants’ motion to dismiss the case, following the recommendation made by magistrate judge Thomas Coffin last April. Judge Coffin determined that the youths had standing and had potential constitutional and public trust claims.
The youth plaintiffs (who range from nine to 20 years old) and the nonprofit Our Children’s Trust claim violation of the public trust doctrine, and most prominently, violation of their constitutional rights to life, liberty and property due to climate instability. Federal agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are the main defendants, supported by the fossil fuel industry as interveners in the case. The plaintiffs allege that the government has known about the dangers of climate change for decades, yet deliberately pursued policies that enabled a fossil-fuel-based energy system and locked in dangerous levels of warming that may be irreversible.
Plaintiffs seek relief in the form of a court mandate that the US develop a climate recovery plan based on the current science.
“This is a critical step toward solution of the climate problem, and none too soon, as climate change is accelerating,” said Dr. James Hansen, guardian in the case for all future generations, and world-renowned climate scientist. “Now we must ask the court to require the government to reduce fossil fuel emissions at a rate consistent with the science.”
Although this was not a decision on the merits, Judge Aiken acknowledged the substantive argument that the conventional policy response to the climate crisis has failed to prevent harm.
“This action is of a different order than the typical environmental case,” she wrote in her decision. “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.”
In seeking appeal, the government will ask the judge for certification that raises a jurisdictional question, but Vermont Law School professor Patrick Parenteau said she will likely deny this request, thus sending the case to trial.
“I think the case has a lot of moral force and a lot of rhetorical force, regardless of what its ultimate fate may be,” Parenteau told Truthout, adding that it will hopefully capture public attention and remind people that elections have consequences, particularly for younger generations.
“We now have a president who is going to greatly expand the use of fossil fuels, restore the coal industry, expand oil and gas leasing on federal lands and waters,” Parenteau explained. “So in a perverse way, [Trump’s] election has strengthened the plaintiffs’ hand here.”
According to 16-year-old plaintiff and youth director of Earth Guardians Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, youth are defying the odds in this historic fight.
“We’re doing what so many people told us we were incapable of doing: holding our leaders accountable for their disastrous and dangerous actions,” Martinez said. “I and my co-plaintiffs are demanding justice for our generation and justice for all future generations. This is going to be the trial of our lifetimes.”
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