21 Teens Sue US Government Over Climate Change

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Originally published on Gas2.

21 children are suing the US government in federal court, claiming it has breached its obligations to them under the Constitution to protect their civil rights. Specifically, they allege lack of government action on climate change is an infringement of their rights to life, liberty, and equal protection under the law.


Judge Thomas Coffin heard arguments in the case, Juliana vs. United States, at the US District Court in Eugene, Oregon. At issue is whether the plaintiffs have standing to bring their case. Quinn Sorenson, an attorney representing the energy industry, which has intervened in the case on the government’s behalf, said the suit was an example of “archetypal generalized grievance,” meaning “any person on the planet could bring a related claim based on anything in any district,” he said.

According to The Guardian, Julia Olson, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs told the press after the hearings, “What we have is not just a failure to act. The government is doing everything to fuel this problem.”  She pointed to the permitting of oil and gas drilling and the export of fossil fuels, including the recently approved Jordan Cove Liquefied Natural Gas terminal in Coos Bay, Oregon, which the complaint says “enhances the cumulative danger” caused by the government’s actions.

The case is part of a larger group of cases being brought across the country by Our Children’s Trust and others challenging the federal and state governments. The suits seek damages from climate change related harms because of a violation of the public trust doctrine, which holds that governments own resources in trust for public use. Our Children’s Trust attorney Andrea Rodgers, who was not involved in Wednesday’s hearing but was in town to observe, said her organization has cases pending in every state.

If successful, the case in Eugene would require the government to create an inventory of US carbon dioxide emissions and create “an enforceable national remedial plan to phase out fossil fuel emissions and draw down excess atmospheric CO2 so as to stabilize the climate system and protect the vital resources on which Plaintiffs now and will depend,” according to the complaint, originally filed in August.

Who are these people? According to Australian news site News.com.au, one of the leaders is 15 year old Xiuhtezcatl Martinez. He says he is the youth director of a group called Earth Guardians, — “army of teens in over 50 countries who demand sustainable policy from our world leaders.” Martinez was raised in Colorado in the Aztec tradition and has appeared before the United Nations General Assembly to speak about climate change. He has been part of the environmental movement since he was six.

Are these people crazy? Maybe not. A groundbreaking legal action in the Netherlands last year was successful, with the court ordering the government to cut emissions more quickly. A lawsuit against the state of Washington in 2011 resulted in the state government being ordered to look at its plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Eventually Governor Jay Inslee directed regulators to cap emissions and curb them by 50 per cent by 2050.

Some of the biggest polluters in the country are taking the latest lawsuit seriously. Almost every fossil fuel-related company in America has asked to join the government as defendants in the case. They argue that the case was a “direct, substantial threat to [their] businesses”.
They include some of the most powerful companies in the country such as Exxon Mobil, BP, Shell, Koch Industries as well as 625 oil and natural gas companies.

They are putting their substantial resources into making sure the legal action fails. “The fossil fuel industry would not want to be in court unless it understood the significance of our case,” says Philip Gregory, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs. “This litigation is a momentous threat to fossil fuel companies.”

How likely is it that the suit will succeed? Not very, unfortunately. The federal courts are crammed full of judges who have been trained by conservative think tanks and right wing organizations like The Federalist Society over the past 40 years as part of a coordinated plan to subvert the system of checks and balances enshrined in the US Constitution.

If you think this group you have never heard of is on the fringe of American jurisprudence, think again. Supreme Court justices John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and the late Antonin Scalia have all been members, according to Wikipedia. If the President, most members of Congress, and the majority of judges all adhere to the same ideological principles, the thinking goes, there will be very little checking and balancing taking place.

The case also involves complex and thorny issues that constitutional scholars salivate over. But none of that really matters. More than 200 elementary and middle school children rode buses for up to two hours to stand outside the courthouse in the rain in support of the young people inside.  That alone may be the most heartening development in the political landscape this century.

There is an old adage that says, “If the people will lead, their leaders must follow.” If these young people are our leaders of the future. America will be in very good hands.

Reprinted with permission.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

Steve Hanley has 5256 posts and counting. See all posts by Steve Hanley

13 thoughts on “21 Teens Sue US Government Over Climate Change

  • Global Warming caused Climate Change isn’t a generalized grievance. The causes are well known and as demonstrated in Paris recently there is very widespread international consensus on the risks and need to take action.

    This doesn’t open the floodgates to suing the government on meritless grounds.

  • This will be fun to watch.

  • Next, it’s time to go after the businesses who sell their products in disposable plastic that is destroying the oceans.

    • But they do not own natural resources in trust of the general public, like the US government does.

  • Burning fossil fuels and causing damages to hundreds of millions of people as a result *is* a violation of the public trust. At the very least the government should be prohibited from leasing out government-owned lands for fossil fuel extraction.

    But it’s true we have a deeply corrupt court system which is unlikely to do anything about it.

  • Publicity stunt. US government has sovereign immunity.

    • Couldn’t that have been said about the government of the Netherlands, and that suit is forcing change in that country? Unfortunately in this country as stated in the article, the judiciary has become substantially politicized, and this may not succeed.

  • They argue that the case was a “direct, substantial threat to [their] businesses”

    If a drug pusher said that to the judge, people would scoff, yet the drug pusher’s product represents a danger only to the people who directly consume it. The product of Exxon Mobil, BP, Shell, Koch Industries etc is a danger to every child on the planet.

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  • We should all be more like these children.

  • Could this be expanded to a class action that thousands or even millions could join ? If so it would have a greater chance of sucess.

  • “And a Little Child Shall Lead Them”

  • “Are these people crazy?”

    Clearly not. It’s the status quo that deserves that label.

Comments are closed.