Climate activists gathered in front of the Federal District Courthouse in Eugene on March 9 to attend and support the hearing of a landmark environmental law suit. Twenty one young plaintiffs are suing the United States government and the Obama Administration for not fully acting to stop pollution from carbon emissions.
The case, Juliana et al v. United States, is being called the first of its kind. The plaintiffs are all under the age of 21, and some are even as young as elementary school age. They allege that the U.S. government, knowing for decades about adverse effects of fossil fuels on the planet’s climate, did not do enough to protect future generations’ right to a clean and sustainable environment. This is the first case in history to bring a constitutional argument into environmental law claims.
Big oil and manufacturing companies have joined in on this case as intervening defendants under newly-formed trade associations, arguing with the government against the plaintiffs’ case.
Environmental scientists from all over are voicing their opinions, including University of Oregon professor of environmental science Ronald Mitchell.
“The lawsuit makes a compelling legal case for why we should protect the climate,” said Mitchell. “It’s shifting from a, ‘What’s in my best interest?’ perspective to a, ‘What’s the right thing to do for future generations?’ perspective.”
The plaintiffs say that burning carbon fuels violates the Public Trust Doctrine, a law which states that natural resources must be used in the public’s best interest. In Oregon and other states, this is the same kind of law that puts environmental regulations on businesses in order to prevent things like drought and deforestation.
Professor Mary Wood, who teaches environmental law at UO did a lot of her early work with public trust arguments like these.
Wood says that the constitutional claims are unique to this case, but a case a few years ago made similar public trust arguments. That case was brought before the district court in Washington D.C. and was dismissed before going to trial.
The defendants want this case dismissed as well, citing a Supreme Court decision that says that the public trust is a state issue and not up to federal courts. This is the same arguments that got the case in D.C. dismissed back in 2012.
Supporters of the lawsuit say this is an incorrect reading of the Supreme Court decision, and that the judiciary should set a new precedent for how climate issues are handled.
“The defendants’ motion is saying that it isn’t the courts’ job to intervene in this kind of policy,” Wood said, “and this is exactly the point here. The plaintiffs are saying that the other branches of government should have done something a long time ago, now it’s up to the courts to force them to take action.”
If the case is dismissed, the plaintiffs can move into an appeals process to try and get the case reviewed at another level. If it goes to trial, it would be the first case of its kind to do so. Even if the Oregon case is thrown out, the plaintiffs have filed similar suits in all 50 states, so this legal argument will not be going away any time soon.
According to Wood, these claims are only gaining momentum.
“When you look at the stakes involved, there is no bigger case in the world,” Wood said. “This case affects everybody.”
Timeline of the Case
Aug 12, 2015: International Youth Day – Plaintiffs file law suit against Federal Government Agencies and the Office of the President of the United States.
Nov 12, 2015: Global oil companies and manufacturers file to oppose the law suit as intervenor defendants against the plaintiffs. Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin granted them defendant status on Jan 14, 2016.
Nov 17, 2015: Defendants request that the court dismiss the case, citing a similar court case that was dismissed in 2012.
Jan 6, 2016: Plaintiffs file response to federal government’s request to dismiss the case.
Mar 9, 2016: Magistrate Judge Coffin heard oral arguments from the defendants on their motion to dismiss the case.
**See full article for details of what might happen next.**