Over the course of one week in August 2015, Alex Loznak’s entire life changed. He left the Oregon farm that has been in his family for seven generations to attend Columbia University, and he sued the federal government for violating his constitutional rights.
“As recently as a year and a half ago, I was a fairly normal teenage kid,” Loznak tells Business Insider. “I was finishing up my senior year of high school, living on my family’s farm. I was worrying about my SATs and getting into college. And then my life really took off in a direction I couldn’t have imagined before.”
Loznak is part of a group of 21 youth plaintiffs who have filed a lawsuit against President Obama and various federal agencies for failing to protect the earth’s natural resources for future generations. A federal judge denied all motions to dismiss the case last week, paving the way for it to go to trial.
The kids, who range from 9 to 20 years old, argue that by failing to prevent climate change despite detailed knowledge of the dangers it poses, the federal government is violating their constitutional rights to life, liberty and property. The government, according to the plaintiffs, has not upheld its legal obligation to protect public trust resources like air and water, so the youth seek a court decision that will compel federal agencies to regulate emissions and take actions to prevent climate change.
“Our elected leaders have really dropped the ball on this one, and they’re about to get so much worse,” Loznak says, referring to the looming environmental threats of a Trump administration. “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.”
The group initially sued just the government, but several fossil fuel industry groups — the National Association of Manufacturers, the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, and the American Petroleum Institute — legally intervened after suit was filed, arguing that the outcome would impact their business interests. The fossil fuel industry was permitted to voluntarily join the federal government’s side of the case, meaning the kids are now suing them, too.
“We opposed their intervention in the case, because the case is directed at the federal government,” says Julia Olson, counsel for the plaintiffs and executive director of Our Children’s Trust, a nonprofit that helps youth secure legal rights to a clean atmosphere and stable climate. “But I think the fact that they’re in the case really helps tell the whole story.”
Our Children’s Trust, which is based in Eugene, Oregon, assembled the group of plaintiffs, as well as the legal team representing them. The kids hail from 10 states, including Hawaii and Alaska, though the largest contingent comes from Oregon. Leading climate scientist James Hansen, who is considered the father of climate change awareness, is also named as a plaintiff, serving as a guardian for future generations and for his granddaughter, Sophie, who is a plaintiff as well.
As part of their role in the case, the kids have been meeting with officials — Loznak says he’s talked to his senators and congressmen, as well as the Secretary of Energy — and have also been publicly discussing their own thoughts about climate change. To demonstrate that the government’s failure to regulate emissions has personal impacts for them, many plaintiffs filed statements about their experiences with climate change as part of the case.
In Loznak’s 15-page account, he highlights the impact that record-breaking temperatures have had on his family’s farm over the last few summers.
“During those heat waves, many of our trees died,” he says. “We had plantations of timber trees that died. Some of our hazelnut trees died or needed intensive watering as a result of that.”
Victoria Barrett, a high-school senior from White Plains, New York, cited the threat that rising sea levels pose to New York City as her personal cause.
“It’s my my favourite place on earth and I love it so much,” Barrett says. “The fact that we’re right in the front lines of disaster due to sea level rise, and the idea that this city somehow won’t be the same because of human actions taken that could be prevented, means a lot to me. It motivates me to fight more.”
Barrett, who commutes to Manhattan to attend the Notre Dame School, says she believes the group of plaintiffs represent the voice of their generation on this issue.
“The climate disaster is going to impact people in the future much more heavily than it already is now. This is an outlet for us to be able to make a big impact without needing the ability to vote,” she says.
The Obama administration attempted to get the case dismissed on a variety of grounds. The legal team claimed that the case presented political questions that couldn’t be adjudicated by a federal court, that the kids lacked sufficient standing to sue, and that a ruling could not ensure the plaintiff’s claim would be redressed since there are so many contributors to global warming.
Also at issue is a concept called the public trust doctrine, which suggests that the government has a duty to protect certain natural resources from damage for the future beneficiaries of them. The defendants alleged that the federal government doesn’t have public trust obligations the way states do, and that the atmosphere is not a public trust asset.
On November 10, a federal judge in Eugene, Oregon rejected all of these arguments. Just because the legal and political implications of the suit are unprecedented, Judge Ann Aiken wrote in her decision, doesn’t mean it should be dismissed.
“This action is of a different order than the typical environmental case,” Aiken’s decision reads. “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.”
That means the case will proceed. And because of Donald Trump’s denial of climate change and promise to “cancel” the Paris Agreement, some environmentalists are now hailing the suit — and the power of the judicial branch in general — as a kind of last hope for the planet.
“For the first time ever in the history of our nation, a federal court has recognised that one of our implicit liberties is to have a climate system that is capable of sustaining human life, and that life and human civilisation couldn’t go on without that,” Olson says. “So that’s really groundbreaking and it’s critical at this point in time.”
The lawyers and plaintiffs are currently pushing the Obama administration to settle the case, since that would give the courts the ability to hold the Trump administration accountable for actions that augment climate change. Last month, Loznak sent a letter to President Obama asking him to come to the table.
“It’s in Obama’s interest. It’s how he wants to be remembered,” Loznik says. “There’s no good reason why Obama should not settle with us. But of course, in government sometimes the fact that there’s no good reason something shouldn’t happen doesn’t mean it happens.”
Aji Piper, a 16-year-old plaintiff from Seattle, Washington, says he’s also hoping for a settlement since the case could hypothetically make its way to the Supreme Court, which will likely soon get a new conservative justice.
“If the Supreme Court were to rule that our case had no grounds or something like that, or that it was wrong, it would immediately destroy the case and also a lot of future cases,” he says. “It’d be pretty disheartening and pretty grim for a lot of climate action.”
Plus, he adds, climate change is a very time-sensitive issue, and curbing temperature rise requires immediate action.
“It’s a little nerve-wracking right now because I feel like if trial drags on, we’re going to miss our window of opportunity to really do something,” he says.
Regardless of what happens next, Kristin Casper, litigation counsel for Greenpeace’s Global Climate Justice and Liability Project, says Judge Aiken’s decision is already a landmark one.
“I think it’s catapulted us further than we’ve ever been,” she says, noting that the case is part of a global wave of climate-related lawsuits in countries like Switzerland, Peru, and the Philippines. “When they go to trial and have their day in court, it’s going to be important for cases around the world. And already the fact that they have been granted standing is going to increase the likelihood of other people achieving that same success.”
Aji Piper says he hopes the case is also inspiring to other young people who feel helpless.
“Young people are in a position where they have knowledge but they don’t know what to do with it, and then it makes them feel hopeless,” he says. “For a lot of people it gives them hope to see that younger generations are already taking things into their own hands.”