The Trump administration is seeking an appeal in a landmark climate change lawsuit — before the case has even gone to trial.
The plaintiffs in the case are 21 kids who now range in age from 9 to 20. They argue that the federal government is violating their constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property by failing to prevent climate change despite long-held knowledge of its dangerous consequences.
In November 2016, a federal judge denied all motions to dismiss the case, paving the way for it to go to trial.
That’s the order the Trump administration is now seeking to appeal. (The plaintiffs named President Trump as a defendant instead of Barack Obama in February, under the federal rules.)
The youth plaintiffs aren’t seeking financial compensation for the damage climate change is causing, though many have filed statements about how global warming has specifically impacted their lives. Instead, they’re asking the court to compel federal agencies to take action.
In the decision, Judge Ann Aiken said that the plaintiffs want the government to “cease their permitting, authorizing, and subsidizing of fossil fuels and, instead, move to swiftly phase out C02 emissions.”
Those actions stand in direct opposition to the Trump administration’s anti-regulation, pro-coal and oil agenda. So it’s not surprising that the president does not want this case to proceed.
On March 7, Trump’s administration filed two motions. The first seeks an appeal of Judge Aiken’s decision — a rare request in the legal process, since appeals typically don’t come until after the court issues a final ruling. The second motion requests that trial preparation be delayed until after the appeal is considered.
“This request for appeal is an attempt to cover up the federal government’s long-running collusion with the fossil fuel industry,” Alex Loznak, one of the plaintiffs, said in a statement. “My generation cannot wait for the truth to be revealed.”
In addition to the possibility that the case could compel the government to create the very type of environmental regulations Trump has pledged to roll back, it also presents several other problems for the current administration.
First, while the kids initially sued just the government, several fossil fuel industry groups — the National Association of Manufacturers, the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, and the American Petroleum Institute (API) — legally intervened. They argued that the case’s outcome would impact their business interests, and were permitted to join the federal government’s side.
Rex Tillerson, Trump’s Secretary of State, was the former CEO of ExxonMobil, which is represented by the fossil fuel industry groups, and he also served as chairman of the API. The plaintiffs were slated to depose him (under oath) as part of the case before his appointment, but will now eventually do so with Tillerson in his new role.
“The ties between the fossil fuel industry in the federal government run very deep and Mr. Tillerson will have much to add on this crucial issue,” said Philip Gregory, counsel for the plaintiffs, in a statement in January.
Second, as reports surfaced about the Trump administration removing data and information related to climate change from government websites, the plaintiffs filed a request for preservation of all documents and electronically stored information that could be relevant to the case (in other words, anything connected to the government’s knowledge of and policies on climate change).
“Destroying evidence is illegal and we just put these new US defendants and the industry defendants on notice that they are barred from doing so,” Julia Olson, the lead attorney in the case, said in a statement at the time.
The Trump administration said this request to retain records was overly burdensome and that the US would be “irreparably harmed” if the proceedings were not halted until after the motion to appeal is considered.
Third, lawyers from the Obama administration filed an answer to the plaintiff’s complaint in January, one week before Trump’s inauguration. In it, they wrote that the government had longstanding knowledge of the causes of climate change, the negative effects of carbon dioxide emissions, and the danger that rising temperatures posed to health and security in the US. Those admissions make the case even more difficult for the Trump administration attorneys.
It is not known yet whether the motions to appeal will be granted, but it is clear that the Trump administration has many reasons to try to prevent the case from moving ahead.
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