National attention is now focused on what could be the trial of our lifetimes, certainly our children and grandchildren’s lifetimes. The young plaintiffs, ages 11 to 22, in Juliana v. United States allege the U.S. government has failed to protect them from climate change. The lawsuit states, “The constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property of the 21 plaintiffs are being denied by the government for continuing to promote fossil fuels, despite knowing their link to climate change and its impact.” The TV show 60 Minutes recently aired a segment on the case, stating, “The government has known for over 50 years. They do not dispute that climate change is a national security threat, and a threat to our economy. … If the plaintiffs win, it could mean massive changes for the use of fossil fuels.”
The lawsuit, originally filed in 2015 during the Obama administration in U.S. District Court, has been slowed by a quagmire of petitions, requests for dismissals, interventions, oral arguments, rejections, orders and court recommendations, but it continues to move forward. The Trump administration has attempted to silence the voices of the youths and keep science out of the courtroom. The administration has lost five appeals to stop the case, two in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. The case currently is set for June before the Oregon U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Ruling U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken said, “Exercising my ‘reasoned judgment,’ I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society.”
The Trump administration would not be the first to pass the buck with regard to addressing climate change. Environmental lawyer and climate policy expert James Gustave Speth has studied what each administration knew about climate change from Carter to Trump. He concluded in his 2018 report that, despite growing climate change evidence, every administration “continued full-throttle support for the development and use of fossil fuels.” This pattern, Speth wrote, is “the greatest dereliction of civic responsibility in the history of the Republic.”
Concerning the young people’s case, Speth stated, “The whole strategy of the government now for three years has been to prevent the trial from happening. I think they don’t want the spotlight put on all this information or on the threats to the well-being of this new generation, which is going to absorb all the shock of our neglect. It is important that the lawsuit is brought by young people, because it really makes everyone face the reality of the challenge. I just hope and pray that the case gets to trial. I think it will be a landmark in public education. And it could lead to a decision that would really galvanize action.”
The Juliana plaintiffs are receiving powerful support from many and diverse groups. On March 1, 15 amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefs were filed with the Court of Appeals on behalf of communities, members of U.S. Congress, legal scholars, religious and women’s groups, businesses, historians, medical doctors, international lawyers, environmentalists and more than 30,000 youth under the age of 25.
The largest group of eligible voters in the U.S. in the 2020 election will be millennials. They clearly understand, despite this administration’s attempts to suppress science and environmental information, that they will be the first population group to be drastically affected by climate change. Those who are younger will have an even more difficult future. These young people are becoming more outspoken and less patient. They have everything to lose.
Susan Atkinson is a volunteer with Citizens Climate Lobby, a nonprofit, nonpartisan, grassroots advocacy organization focused on national policies to address climate change. She lives in Durango, Colo.