21 young people are suing the US government, claiming a constitutional right to a stable climate. Here's what happened in court.

  • In 2015, 21 young people sued the federal government, claiming the US government was violating their constitutional rights by contributing to climate change despite knowledge of its dangerous consequences.
  • The Obama and Trump administrations have both attempted to get the case thrown out numerous times.
  • Yesterday, three federal judges in Portland, Oregon heard arguments about case. They will decide whether or not it can go to trial.
  • Public-health experts supported the plaintiffs claims’ that climate change contributes to significant negative health impacts.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Four years ago, 21 young people sued the US government, alleging that its role in contributing to climate change violates their constitutional rights.

In the landmark lawsuit, the plaintiffs allege that their generation has already suffered and will continue to suffer the consequences of a climate breakdown – including health problems like allergies, heat stroke, and insect-borne disease. The young plaintiffs, represented by the non-profit law organisation Our Children’s Trust, are asking the government to adopt policies that will reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

“Our elected leaders have really dropped the ball on this one,” plaintiff Alex Loznak previously told Business Insider. “The leadership really has to come from those who are going to be impacted, and that’s us, that’s young people, that’s me and my fellow plaintiffs.”

Both the Obama and Trump administrations tried multiple times to get the lawsuit dismissed. The government’s latest legal manoeuvre came in the fall of last year, when the Trump administration requested a pre-trial appeal from the Supreme Court. The lawsuit was temporarily put on hold, and the Supreme Court eventually punted the decision about the appeal back to the Ninth Circuit.

Alex Loznak Our Children's TrustAndrea Willingham/Our Children’s TrustAlex Loznak speaks following a court hearing in Eugene, Oregon in March 2016.

Now, more than six months after the original trial date, the plaintiffs’ lawyers and US government attorneys presented arguments about whether the case should be allowed to proceed in front of a panel of judges in Portland, Oregon. The judges’ decision will ultimately determine whether or not the case will go to trial.

A landmark climate change lawsuit, led by kids

Loznak and his fellow plaintiffs’ case rests on a simple though unprecedented argument: They allege that the US government has violated their rights to life, liberty, and property by engaging in actions that contribute to climate change despite long-held knowledge of its harmful consequences.

The young people – ranging in age from 11 to 23, and hailing from 10 states – aren’t asking for compensation. Instead, they want the court to compel federal agencies to end policies that directly hurt the environment (like subsidizing fossil-fuel extraction) and mandate government action that will phase out excess greenhouse-gas emissions.

Our Children's Trust lawsuit plaintiffsAndrea Willingham/Our Children’s TrustThe youth plaintiffs after a court hearing in Eugene, Oregon in March 2016.

At yesterday’s hearing, Julia Olson, chief legal counsel for Our Children’s Trust, asked the court to “apply bedrock constitutional law and principles to a wholly new set of facts,” since this is the first time anyone has made the legal argument that a stable, safe climate is a constitutional right.

She added that current federal energy policy “puts children in harm’s way.”

“You present compelling evidence that we have a real problem,” one of the judges, Andrew Hurwitz, said yesterday in response to Olson’s arguments. “You present compelling evidence that we have inaction by the other two branches of government. It may even rise to the level of criminal neglect. The tough question for me – and I suspect for my colleagues – is, do we get to act because of that?” Hurwitz said.

Our Children's Trust plaintiffsAndrea Willingham/Our Chidren’s TrustThe youth plaintiffs after a court hearing in Eugene, Oregon in March 2016.

Jeffrey Bossert Clark, an assistant attorney general, argued on behalf of the administration that this case “is a dagger at the separation of powers,” since plaintiffs want the judiciary branch to play a role in directing policy, rather than leaving that to elected officials.

In an earlier legal filing, the Trump administration attorneys said “there is no fundamental constitutional right to a ‘stable climate system.'”

If the judges decide not to allow the case to proceed, it could be dismissed (though there would be opportunities for subsequent appeals). There’s no deadline for the panel’s decision, though.

Climate change contributes to negative health impacts

One of the linchpins in the plaintiffs’ argument is that climate change has negatively impacted their mental and physical well-being, and will continue to do so in the future.

In a May 30 letter to the New England Journal of Medicine, multiple public health officials stated that “developing fetuses, infants, and children are more biologically and psychologically vulnerable than adults to the effects of climate change.”

More frequent and longer heat waves, increasingly intense weather events like droughts and wildfires, greater exposure to infectious disease, food and water insecurity, and air pollution from fossil-fuel burning are all threats, the authors added.

Youth climate lawsuit our children's trustRobin Loznak PhotographyThe Our Children’s Trust team of plaintiffs on the steps of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on April 27, 2017.

The letter echoed an amicus brief that some 80 researchers and 15 health organisations filed in favour of the plaintiffs. The brief documented how people born in the US since 1995 – the plaintiffs’ generation – have been disproportionately impacted by the effects of climate change.

The brief’s authors added that the plaintiffs’ generation is “suffering – and will continue to suffer as they age – harms different from those of prior generations.” As examples, they cited the negative effects of heat, drought, severe storms, and air pollution on the group’s mental and physical health.

These young plaintiffs aren’t alone

In the four years since the plaintiffs filed their suit, youth around the world have started mobilizing in other ways to address the threat of climate change.


Read More:
Millennials and Gen Z are finally gaining ground in the climate battle – here are the signs they’re winning

Protesters from the Sunrise Movement, a group of young people who advocate for climate-change policy, demonstrated outside Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s office to call for a Green New Deal in 2018. Since then, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts introduced a Green New Deal resolution in the US House and Senate.

Greta Thunberg, a young Swedish climate activist who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, has emerged as the primary voice and face of the growing School Strike for Climate movement. On March 15, 2019, young people in more than123 countries joined Thunberg to skip school and voice their demands for more robust climate policies and the reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions.

“We’re in a climate moment right now,” environmental activist and author Bill McKibben previously told Business Insider. He added, “all these things started to combine to produce this new moment where people are open to change.”

But if the plaintiffs fail to sway this panel of judges, that could set a devastating precedent for other climate suits, according to Ann Carlson, an environmental law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“That would leave the government essentially immune from being sued for policies involving climate change,” Carlson told the LA Times.

The plaintiffs also see themselves as part of a larger movement.

“It’s not just these 21 young people across the United States,” Vic Barrett, one of the plaintiffs, told the New York Times. “It’s about highlighting young people all over the United States, and the work we’re doing and the work we’re continuing to do to hold the government accountable for putting our future in jeopardy.”

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