There is lots of climate-related legal action occurring in the US these days. A few weeks ago, for example, we blogged about the Clean Power Plan, Obama’s plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the US. Several lawsuits have already been filed (and at least one has already been dismissed as premature) in an attempt to see the plan quashed. Meanwhile, a group of young people have now sued the federal government for not responding adequately enough to climate change.
Last month, twenty-one young people (aged 8 to 19) filed a lawsuit against the US federal government (including the President and several federal agencies). Outspoken climate researcher James Hansen is named as guardian for “future generations,” which are also listed as plaintiffs.
The plaintiffs, assisted by the Oregon-based non-profit Our Children’s Trust, are hoping a court will grant their request for several declarations, including that by failing to prevent the accumulation of dangerous levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, the federal government has been violating the constitutional rights of current youth and future generations to life, liberty, property, and public trust resources. They are further seeking injunctive relief, including an order that would compel the federal government to protect these rights through the implementation of a remedial plan for the phase-out of fossil fuel emissions and the reduction of CO2 levels.
The suit is certainly unusual, if not entirely unique. Beginning back in 2011, similarly assisted by Our Children’s Trust, a group of youth launched a series of lawsuits at the federal and state levels based on the public trust doctrine and the premise that the young and future generations have a right to a healthy atmosphere and stable climate.
The EPA, for one, does not appear to dispute the plaintiffs’ assertion that current generations have a moral obligation to see that future generations inherit a healthy planet. It has, however, indicated it feels that government efforts have been adequate.
The case is a long shot. The plaintiffs face numerous hurdles, including standing, justicability, and a string of unfavourable recent decisions on the public trust doctrine, among other issues. And of course, as elsewhere, courts in the US have been hesitant to compel government action on climate change, and climate litigation efforts have generally failed.
There have, however, been indications that the tide is turning and that courts are beginning to respond positively to such requests. Most prominently, the recent landmark decision out of the Netherlands, while in no way binding in the US (nor in Canada, for that matter), offers some hope for groups and individuals seeking climate justice through the courts.