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US Supreme Court allows historic kids’ climate lawsuit to go forward

Chief legal council of Our Children's Trust Julia Olson

A group of children and young people are suing the US government (shown here with lawyer Julia Olson) to force stronger action on climate change.Credit: Robin Loznak/ZUMA Wire

A landmark climate-change lawsuit brought by young people against the US government can proceed, the Supreme Court said on 2 November. The case, Juliana v. United States, had been scheduled to begin trial on 29 October in Eugene, Oregon, in a federal district court. But those plans were scrapped last month after President Donald Trump's administration asked the Supreme Court to intervene and dismiss the case.

The plaintiffs, who include 21 people ranging in age from 11 to 22, allege that the government has violated their constitutional rights to life, liberty and property by failing to prevent dangerous climate change. They are asking the district court to order the federal government to prepare a plan that will ensure the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere falls below 350 parts per million by 2100, down from an average of 405 parts per million in 2017.

By contrast, the US Department of Justice argues that “there is no right to ‘a climate system capable of sustaining human life’” — as the Juliana plaintiffs assert.

Although the Supreme Court has now denied the Trump administration's request to the dismiss the case, the path ahead is unclear. In its 2 November order, the Supreme Court suggested that a federal appeals court should consider the administration's arguments before any trial starts in the Oregon district court.

Lawyers for the young people said they would push the district court to reschedule the trial next week.

“The youth of our nation won an important decision today from the Supreme Court that shows even the most powerful government in the world must follow the rules and process of litigation in our democracy,” said Julia Olson, co-counsel for the plaintiffs, in a statement reacting to the Supreme Court decision.

A new generation

Although climate change is a global problem, lawyers around the world have brought climate-change-related lawsuits against local and national governments and corporations since the late 1980s. These suits have generally sought to force the sort of aggressive action against climate change that has been tough to achieve through political means.

Many of the cases have failed, but in 2015, a citizen’s group called the Urgenda Foundation won a historic victory against the Dutch government. The judge in that case ordered the Netherlands to cut its greenhouse-gas emissions to at least 25% below 1990 levels by 2020, citing the possibility of climate-related damages to “current and future generations of Dutch nationals” and the government’s “duty of care … to prevent hazardous climate change”. A Dutch appeals court upheld the verdict last month.

Over the past few years, the Dutch case has emerged as a model for climate lawsuits in other countries, says Gillian Lobo, a lawyer who specializes in climate-change-related cases at ClientEarth in London. More recently, she says, the Juliana lawsuit has inspired its own copycats — some of which have progressed further than Juliana itself. “It is a global phenomenon,” Lobo says.

One case modelled on the Juliana lawsuit has already produced a striking victory. In January, 25 young people sued the Colombian government for their right to a healthy environment, in a case called Demanda Generaciones Futuras v. Minambiente.

The Colombian Supreme Court found in the plaintiffs’ favour in April. Not only did it order the government to take steps to reduce deforestation and climate change, it also ruled that the Colombian Amazon rainforest is “a subject of rights” that is entitled to “protection, conservation, maintenance and restoration”.

Fuzzy future

The young plaintiffs in the Juliana case allege that they have already suffered harm as a result of climate change. Seventeen-year-old Jaime and her family left their home on the Navajo Nation Reservation in Cameron, Arizona, in 2011 because the natural springs on which they depended for water were drying up. Fifteen-year-old Jayden’s home in Louisiana was severely damaged by flooding in 2016, and 19-year-old Vic’s school in White Plains, New York, closed temporarily in 2012 after Hurricane Sandy hit.

US climate hawks hope that the Juliana plaintiffs will ultimately prevail, but President Donald Trump’s administration is mounting a multipronged defence. The Justice Department denies that the district court in Oregon has jurisdiction over the broad sweep of federal policies at issue, and that the rights to life, liberty and property set out in the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution translate into the right to a stable climate.

In any case, the department argues, no meaningful redress is possible, given that drastically reducing emissions in the United States might not move the needle on climate change much if other countries’ greenhouse-gas output grows. This echoes the argument made in 2007 by the Supreme Court's chief justice, John Roberts, when he dissented from the court’s decision in a pivotal climate case, Massachusetts vs. Environmental Protection Agency. The court’s ruling, which Roberts protested, forced the agency to regulate carbon emissions as a pollutant.

Andrea Rodgers, co-counsel for the Juliana plaintiffs, says that the Trump administration hasn’t challenged the fact that humans are changing the climate. “They haven’t presented experts to contest what our scientists are saying about ice melt or sea-level rise or terrestrial impacts or how climate change happens or ocean acidification,” she says.

To win, Rodgers says, “we have to show that the United States government is liable, but also that there is a remedy that the judge can order”. The United States has seen its greenhouse-gas emissions drop in recent years, as the country shifts its energy mix away from coal and towards renewable sources, but as of 2016, it remains the second-largest emitter after China.

James Hansen, a climatologist at Columbia University in New York City and a long-time climate activist, is an expert witness in the case — but he is also a plaintiff, representing “future generations” not yet born. (His 20-year-old granddaughter, Sophie Kivlehan, is also a plaintiff.)

Hansen has been fighting for action on climate change since he first testified on the subject before the US Senate in 1988. He says that if the Juliana plaintiffs lose their case, he will simply try another way. “We need to win as soon as possible,” Hansen says, “but if we lose, we don’t give up — we come back with a stronger case.”

Nature 563, 163-164 (2018)



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