Eighteen of the 21 youth plaintiffs in the Our Children’s Trust youth climate lawsuit attended a December 11 hearing at the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. The Court heard oral arguments in response to a move by the Trump administration to dismiss the suit before it goes to trial. Over 100 supporters rallied outside the courtroom to support the suit, which has been described as “the trial of the century.”
The case involves 21 youth who are suing the federal government for violating their constitutional right to a stable climate. The 10 to 21-year old youths assert that the U.S. government has endangered the atmosphere and jeopardized their future by actively promoting the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels, increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) that enables destructive climate change. They want a science-based climate recovery plan that will reduce CO2 from the current level of over 400 ppm to less than 350 ppm. They state that their constitutional right to “life, liberty and property” includes a right to a healthy atmosphere, which is part of the public trust.
“What we urgently need right now is a scientific and constitutional discussion of the irreparable harm that climate change causes” — Jacob Lebel, age 20, plaintiff from Roseburg, Oregon.
Over the past two years, this case, known as Juliana vs United States, has survived several legal challenges from the government and from fossil fuel industry associations such as the American Petroleum Institute. Finally, a judge set a trial date for February 2018 in a Federal district court in Oregon. However, in July the Trump administration filed a rare legal challenge known as a “writ of mandamus” seeking to dismiss the lawsuit before it even goes to trial, claiming that the discovery requests in the case are too “burdensome”.
Julia Olson, Our Children’s Trust Chief Legal Counsel, said the government is putting forward “a ludicrous proposition that the federal government can’t handle discovery in this case when a group of young people and their pro bono lawyers can.”
On December 11, Attorney Julia Olson for the youth, and Deputy Assistant Attorney General Eric Grant for the Trump administration, presented oral arguments before a three-judge panel. Chief Judge Sidney Thomas and Judge Marsha Berson appeared skeptical about the government’s request to halt the case at this juncture and overturn the lower court’s ruling, saying that it would be an unprecedented and potentially unwarranted maneuver.
Judge Alex Kozinski, a Reagan appointee, asked how the young plaintiffs were suffering any more than other Americans from the effects of climate change. Olson replied that not only do children suffer disproportionate harm now from environmental problems, but that they would continue to suffer in the future. “They will live far longer than you,” she told Kozinski, eliciting chuckles from the youth plaintiffs.
“Every week, or even every day, that our trial is delayed is time I spend further worrying about the stability of our climate system and the security of my future,” said Kelsey Juliana, a 21-year-old plaintiff from Eugene, Oregon.
A decision on whether the case can move forward to trial is anticipated within the next few months.