Young people and children are taking the future of climate change into their own hands. It’s only fair—they will live with the effects of choices we make today.
On the west coast, youth climate activism has taken to the courts, and has been scoring some significant progress in the past months. It’s a powerful way to give the plaintiffs, some as young as eight years old, a voice. They won’t gain the right to vote for a decade, time none of us have to wait for climate-minded voters to come of age.
Oregon judge Ann Aiken ruled recently in favor of a group of 21 young people who brought a case against the U.S. government and fossil fuel industry. The plaintiffs claim that fossil fuel industries and the federal government have violated their constitutional rights to life, liberty and property by contributing to emissions that drive climate change and by failing to combat the problem in a timely manner. Judge Aiken of Oregon’s U.S. District Court agrees—on November 10 the judge denied the defendants’ motions to dismiss the case.
An environmentally dangerous path
On January 13, the U.S. Department of Justice responded to the youths’ complaint, acknowledging, among other things, that fossil fuel emissions drive climate change and that members of the U.S. federal government have been aware of scientific research on climate change for over 50 years. The continued use of fossil fuels, the DOJ wrote, is “placing our nation on an increasingly costly, insecure, and environmentally dangerous path.” It’s a big admission of culpability for a department that tried to have the case dismissed just a few months ago. Both Judge Aiken’s order and the DOJ’s statement are serious victories for the kids as they prepare to go to trial.
The same group also seeks testimony from Rex Tillerson, former CEO of ExxonMobil and current nominee for Secretary of State under Donald Trump. Tillerson has come under fire from the media campaign #ExxonKnew, which airs the fact that the corporation concealed its research about emissions-driven climate change for decades. Several other lawsuits around the country, including one reported here last week, have taken up the call to investigate just what ExxonMobil knew.
Other youth activism is playing out in state courts. In Washington, eight youth petitioners took on the state’s Department of Ecology, first winning a 2015 case that required the department to make a functional emissions reduction plan. When the department made and then withdrew its plans last year, the kids took Ecology back to court. Now, they’ve sued the state government and Governor Jay Inslee with a constitutional rights claim similar to the plaintiffs’ claim in the federal case in Oregon. Judge Hollis Hill in Seattle has ruled twice in favor of the young activists.
A responsibility to citizens
Both the Washington and Oregon cases are supported by Our Children’s Trust, an organization that focuses on helping young people gain the legal right to climate protection. The group also has youth-led legal actions pending in Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.
The landmark federal case from Oregon aims to influence the legal establishment’s interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. If the case is ultimately successful, state and federal governments will bear a responsibility to their citizens to mitigate the effects of climate change in order to uphold the fundamental rights that the Constitution guarantees. The future of pro-climate legislation is uncertain, to say the least, under the incoming presidential administration. The brave young activists who are fighting in the judicial branch for legal rights to climate protection have the right idea. Establishing those rights will establish a baseline for industry culpability and government responsibility, making it that much easier to hold both government and Big Oil accountable in the future.