The 21 youth plaintiffs suing the federal government over climate change will have their day in court, with a date for the trial now officially set for February 5, 2018.
“Despite incessant efforts by government and industry to prevent our case from moving forward, the date is set for trial,” Alex Loznak, a 20-year old plaintiff from Oregon, said in a press statement. “Having seen some of the most damning evidence to be presented at trial, I am confident that our claims will prevail.”
The case is the first to use a theory known as atmospheric trust law, which argues that the federal government, through actions like fossil fuel subsidies, has actively undermined the youth’s right to a livable climate. Atmospheric trust law is based on an old legal doctrine that holds that the federal government must preserve certainly commonly held elements, like shorelines and waterways, for public use. Applying public trust to the atmosphere, the plaintiffs argue that the government must also take steps to preserve the atmosphere from rampant greenhouse gas pollution.
The trial will take place in Eugene, Oregon, before U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken. Aiken was the judge who ruled the case could move forward to begin with, finding in November that the plaintiffs could reasonably argue that they were likely to suffer personal damages if the United States did not take action to rein in carbon emissions. In January, as President Donald Trump took office, the plaintiffs added him to the lawsuit. They have argued that the action has taken on new importance in the face of an administration that blatantly denies climate change. As head of the federal government, former President Barack Obama had been named in the original case.
Following the plaintiff’s adding Trump as a defendant, the Trump administration — joined by representatives from the fossil fuel industry — appealed Aiken’s November ruling, arguing that the plaintiffs lacked standing. Aiken denied that appeal in June, but the Trump administration subsequently filed an extraordinary petition, known as a writ of mandamus, asking the higher Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn Aiken’s decision even before the case went to trial. The Ninth Circuit is still considering that appeal.
In a separate motion, three fossil fuel industry representatives — the American Petroleum Institute (API), the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), and the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM) — that had joined the case as intervenors on behalf of the defendant applied to withdraw from the case. The motions to withdraw were filed right before a crucial deadline for discovery, including disclosing to the court their position on the science behind climate change.
“Over 18 months ago, these fossil fuel associations went to incredible lengths to become defendants so that they could shut down this case,” Julia Olson, co-lead counsel for plaintiffs and executive director of Our Children’s Trust, the Oregon-based nonprofit supporting the lawsuit, said. “They failed, and youth prevailed. Now these youth and the top climate experts on the planet can go to trial against the Trump Administration.”
The 21 youth plaintiffs — ranging in age from nine to 21 — are not the only kids using the courts to compel action on climate change. In Minnesota, a group of young adults applied to intervene in the state’s regulatory process for Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline, arguing that climate change poses unique threats to them because they will grow up in a climate-changed world, meaning they will have to contend with things like more extreme storms and ocean acidification.
Earlier this week, 28 youths in New Mexico — between the ages of four and 20 — submitted a petition to the state’s Environmental Improvement Board requesting that the state begin the process of implementing a greenhouse gas emission reduction strategy.
“The law in New Mexico is clear: state government must act to protect the health, safety, comfort, economic and social well-being of New Mexicans,” Andrea Rodgers, senior staff attorney with Our Children’s Trust, said in a statement. “This rulemaking process is desperately needed to ensure New Mexico fulfills its legal obligations to address climate change so that these young people get the future they deserve.”