Court rules that children can sue the government over climate negligence

It’s a win for climate action at the judicial level.

CREDIT: Our Children’s Trust
CREDIT: Our Children’s Trust

On Thursday, a federal judge in Oregon ruled that a climate lawsuit brought against the U.S. government by a group of youths can move forward, a win for the strategy of fighting climate change through the judicial branch.

Our Children’s Trust, an Oregon-based non-profit, has filed legal action in every state and at the federal level, claiming that the U.S. government’s actions to address climate change have been inadequate and are endangering young people throughout the country. Fossil fuel companies and the U.S. government filed to have the federal lawsuit dismissed, and, on Thursday, their requests were roundly denied, as U.S. Federal Judge Ann Aiken found the group’s complaints to be valid.

“Although the United States has made international commitments regarding climate change, granting the relief requested here would be fully consistent with those commitments,” Aiken wrote in her decision. “There is no contradiction between promising other nations the United States will reduce C02 emissions and a judicial order directing the United States to go beyond its international commitments to more aggressively reduce C02 emissions.”

The lawsuit is based on the idea of the public trust, which says that the U.S. government must protect common held elements, like waterways and coastlines, for the public. Under the public trust doctrine, the lawsuit argues, the U.S. government must also protect the commonly held atmosphere — and by taking inadequate action to address climate change, they argue, the government is failing to protect the public trust.

Our Children’s Trust called the decision “astounding,” and said that the ensuing case could be “a turning point in United States constitutional history.”

“This decision is one of the most significant in our Nation’s history,” Julia Olson, counsel for the plaintiffs and executive director of Our Children’s Trust, said in a statement. “This court just gave the youth of this country the critical opportunity to protect their futures. In what will be the trial of the millennium, these young plaintiffs will prove that their federal government, in cooperation with the fossil fuel industry, has knowingly put them in grave danger, trading their futures for present convenience and gross profits for a few.”

The 21 plaintiffs, who range in age from nine to 20, are now preparing for trial, though a date has not been set.