With help and guidance from Our Children’s Trust, a group of young plaintiffs have brought suit in federal district court in Oregon against President Obama, the fossil fuel industry, and various government agencies claiming that they have not done enough to protect them from the effects of global climate change. The central issue in the law suit is both simple and innovative. They claim the US Constitution guarantees them the right to life and liberty. Degrading the environment deprives them of both, they claim.
The suit was brought because the young plaintiffs claim only the courts can enforce their constitutional rights in the face of a bunch of know nothings in Congress who refuse to act to protect the citizens of America. One of the plaintiffs is James Hansen, the former NASA scientist who was one of the first to sound the alarm about global warwing. His young grandaughter is also a plaintiff.
On November 11, US District Judge Ann Aiken sitting in Eugene, Oregon ruled that the suit could proceed. The fossil fuel companies marshaled an army of high priced legal talent to argue that the suit should be dismissed. Judge Aiken disagreed. “Federal courts too often have been cautious and overly deferential in the arena of environmental law, and the world has suffered for it,” she wrote in her decision.
She declared that the effects of man-made climate change are “undisputed” and support the plaintiffs’ efforts to hold national powers accountable for the damages caused by global warming. She wrote, “This action is of a different order than the typical environmental case. It alleges that defendants’ actions and inactions — whether or not they violate any specific statutory duty — have so profoundly damaged our home planet that they threaten plaintiffs’ fundamental constitutional rights to life and liberty.”
The timing of the court’s decision is interesting, coming as it does in the same week that saw Donald Trump win the presidency. Trump has repeated called climate changed a hoax and has vowed to prevent the United States from honoring its commitments made at the COP 21 climate change conference in Paris last December.
Trump has now named Myron Ebell — a notorious climate change denier — to head the Environment Protection Agency. Ebell’s mission will be to dismantle as many of the EPA’s existing rules and regulations as possible. Clearly the young plaintiffs can expect no help from the next administration.
What will happen if the plaintiffs win? The answer to that is too speculative to predict. But at least these courageous young people are willing to stand up to the federal government and the fossil fuel industries to force them to stop poisoning the air they breathe and the water they drink and the land they live on. Good for them and godspeed.