While many of us adults are concerned about the environment for the sake of future generations, here's a story that reminds us to never underestimate the intelligence and initiative of our youngest citizens. Last week, a group of 21 young people, aged 9 to 20 years, won the right to sue the US government for its actions that cause climate change, when an Oregon federal judge ruled that the plaintiffs' lawsuit was valid and could proceed to trial.
According to Motherboard, the lawsuit, which is being spearheaded by Our Children’s Trust, a civic engagement nonprofit for youth, charges President Obama, the fossil fuel industry, and other federal agencies for violating the plantiffs' constitutional right to life, liberty, property, and to vital public trust resources, by continuing to use fossil fuels.
The lawsuit was filed in September 2015, and is supported by noted climate scientist James Hansen, who is a co-plaintiff in the case, as guardian for his granddaughter and for future generations. Since last year, lawyers for the defendants from various governmental organizations have attempted to get the case dismissed on various grounds, including the question of whether minors can defend their constitutional rights like adults, as well as asserting that climate change is not caused by humans. As the chief legal counsel for the plaintiffs, Julia Olson explains:
So this problem of carbon pollution and its terrifying consequences is not the result of inaction; it's the result of affirmative action created by the Department of Energy and other defendants to create that fossil fuel energy system for our nation. It's also the result of EPA's affirmative conduct to allow the pollution coming out of that system.
In her ruling, US District Judge Ann Aiken wrote that the case is not about "not about proving that climate change is happening or that human activity is driving it":
This action is of a different order than the typical environmental case. 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. [..] Federal courts too often have been cautious and overly deferential in the arena of environmental law, and the world has suffered for it.
"Biggest case on the planet"The ruling comes right after the surprising election of billionaire businessman, reality television star and professed climate change denier Donald Trump as the next president of the United States. Trump is no stranger to lawsuits: over the last three decades, he and his businesses have been involved in over 3,500 complaints over tax and contract disputes, defamation claims, and allegations of sexual harassment.
Olson had this to say about the significance of the ruling, urging outgoing President Obama to come to an agreement with a binding court order before Trump's inauguration early next year:
We have a President-elect who is an obvious climate denier and both political branches controlled by a party rampant with climate denialism. It makes the job of the court that much more important in our constitutional democracy.
Olson has previously called the lawsuit "the biggest case on the planet", giving voice to the youngest members of society that cannot yet vote but who will no doubt inherit our mess, and hopes it will set a precedent for future federal climate lawsuits. One of the group's most vocal is 16-year-old American-born indigenous environmental youth activist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, youth director of Earth Guardians, who had this to say:
My generation is rewriting history. We’re doing what so many people told us we were incapable of doing: holding our leaders accountable for their disastrous and dangerous actions. [..] 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.
[UPDATE November 15, 2016: Lightly edited for clarity.]