Children’s climate lawsuit to Donald Trump: See you in court

The plaintiffs in the landmark case just named President Donald Trump as a party in the lawsuit.

President Donald Trump talks with reporters in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2017, before signing an executive order on the Dakota Access pipeline. CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci
President Donald Trump talks with reporters in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2017, before signing an executive order on the Dakota Access pipeline. CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci

President Donald Trump can add one more lawsuit to his growing list as president: Juliana v. United States, a federal lawsuit brought against the U.S. government by a group of kids and young adults concerned about climate change.

The lawsuit, which began in August of 2015, argues that the federal government, in its actions, has endangered future generations’ rights to what is known as the public trust . The public trust is an old legal doctrine that holds that it is the government’s responsibility to preserve certain natural resources for public use.

Normally, the public trust relates to natural resources like coastal waters, or navigable waters — things that don’t belong to one particular person, but benefit everyone. But this lawsuit takes the idea of the public trust and applies it to the atmosphere, arguing that by failing to curb rampant carbon pollution — and supporting policies, like subsidies on fossil fuels, that encourage it— the government has not been keeping the public trust for future generations.

On Thursday, youth plaintiffs in the federal case filed notice with the court that they were replacing former President Barack Obama — against whom the case was initially brought — with President Trump. In a statement, the plaintiffs noted that the case has taken on even larger significance now that it is against an administration that has proven itself to be openly hostile to climate policy.

“Our case is a direct constitutional challenge to a Trump administration at war with the reality of climate change and bent on pushing a deadly fossil fuel agenda at the expense of its citizens’ safety and human rights,” Jacob Lebel, a 20-year-old plaintiff in the case who lives in southern Oregon, said. “Climate science, not alternative facts, will determine the outcome of our court trial and that gives me hope for my children’s generation and the future of this country.”

The case is being spearheaded by an Oregon-based organization known as Our Children’s Trust, a nonprofit that seeks to protect the earth’s natural resources for current and future generations. And it’s not just the federal case that’s employing the concept of atmospheric trust litigation, as the legal theory about atmosphere and public trust has become known — in 2011, the organization filed lawsuits and petitions in all 50 states.

The results of those lawsuits have been mixed: some states rejected the claims outright, others have allowed the cases to move forward. The federal case, however, has notched a string of recent victories, culminating in a November decision by a federal judge in Oregon to rule against a request by by a group of fossil fuel companies, trade groups, and the federal government to have the case dismissed.

That means the federal case is moving forward, though a timeline for the trial remains murky. The Trump administration’s lawyers have pushed for a trial date as late as 2019, while lawyers for the youth plaintiffs argue that the urgency of climate change requires the trial to be held sooner. On Tuesday, a federal judge scheduled a status conference in the case for March 8, 2017. The Trump administration’s lawyers have also indicated they might appeal earlier decisions that rejected the government’s motions to dismiss the case.