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Vol. 31, No.3
Spring 2017
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Education Alert

Kids Sue for Right to a Better Climate

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Photo via Andrea Willingham/Our Children's Trust

The youth plaintiffs after a court hearing in Eugene, Oregon, in March 2016.

Two days after the election, 21 plaintiffs, aged 9 to 20, won a critical court ruling on the constitutional obligation of the U.S. government to protect our children’s right to a livable Earth. Juliana v. United States alleges that the government has violated those rights by “directly causing atmospheric CO2 to rise to levels that dangerously interfere with a stable climate system” and knowingly endangered their health and welfare.

The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution bars the federal government from depriving a person of “life, liberty, or property” without due process of law. The suit says that the government’s refusal to avert climate disaster is a violation of the Fifth Amendment. It also states the government has violated its duty to protect the public trust by allowing the depletion and destruction of the atmosphere.

As 13-year-old plaintiff Jayden Foytlin from Rayne, Louisiana, explains: “Our government seems to care more about money for the fossil fuel industry than our futures. But money isn’t going to matter if we can’t fix our planet.”

The Obama Department of Justice admitted three key sets of facts: Government officials have been aware of scientific research on the effects of fossil fuel emissions on the atmosphere for more than 50 years; federal defendants “permit, authorize, and subsidize fossil fuel extraction, development, and exportation”; and “current and projected concentrations of six well-mixed greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, including CO2, threaten the public health and welfare of current and future generations.” The government lawyers then argued that the climate kids didn’t have the legal standing to sue. Climate change, they said, should be le to other branches of government.

But U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken of the federal district court in Oregon ruled that the suit could go forward. She said: “I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society. . . . To hold otherwise would be to say that the Constitution affords no protection against a government’s knowing decision to poison the air its citizens breathe or the water its citizens drink.”

Julia Olson, the lead counsel for the plaintiffs and executive director of Our Children’s Trust, the Oregon-based nonprofit that helped bring the lawsuit, called the decision “one of the most significant in our nation’s history.”

“This is going to be the trial of our lifetimes,” agreed 16-year-old plaintiff Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, from Boulder, Colorado, who testified that increased wildfires and extreme flooding are putting him at risk. “The actions those in power take and the decisions they make will determine the kind of world future generations will inherit.”

Now the government’s case will be handled by Trump’s Department of Justice under Jeff Sessions, which has indicated it is going to stall. And the case is likely to be appealed all the way to the Supreme Court. But, as Jeremy Brecher argued in a recent article in Common Dreams, “Long before the trial, the case will provide a golden ‘teachable movement’ for a full-scale educational campaign and debate on Trump’s commitment to climate destruction.” And, “if the courts won’t enforce that right, it is up to the people to do so.”◼