One kid says that his family’s farm has been damaged by drought and wildfire. Another says that his childhood home has been devalued by rising sea levels. A third alleges an assault on his whole culture as man-made climate change upends the natural world.
These and 18 other “youth plaintiffs” (ages 8 to 19) sued the federal government on Wednesday, walking a first-of-its-kind constitutional claim up the courthouse steps in Eugene, Oregon. The kids argue that inaction on climate change is a violation of their right to life, liberty and property. And they demand that President Obama, seven federal departments and the Environmental Protection Agency act immediately to preserve the climate for “future generations.”
The White House was not immediately available for comment. A spokesperson for the EPA declined to address the specific merits of the lawsuit, but agreed that the government has "a moral obligation to leave a healthy planet for future generations." The agency pointed to the White House's Climate Action Plan -- and the EPA's controversial Clean Power Plan -- as examples of remedies already underway. But the lawsuit portrays these efforts as "ineffectual" and "demonstrably short of what is needed."
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Some of the young people’s complaints are lofty and intellectual, and others reflect basic childhood interests like the health of a local swimming hole. They span childhoods in Oregon, Colorado, Florida, Arizona, Washington state, Hawaii, New York, Alaska, Pennsylvania and Louisiana. But all are treated as equal violations of the U.S. government’s fundamental responsibility to protect its citizens today, and provide for a healthy tomorrow.
“The purpose of the case is to protect our rights,” Tia Marie Hatton, an 18-year-old plaintiff from Oregon, told msnbc. “They depend on a healthy climate and right now that healthy climate is being negatively impacted by the government allowing and promoting the use of fossil fuel.”
“Different rivers and creeks are drying up, and having them get warmer, it gets more algae into them. So it’s like really gross to swim in them,” added Avery McCrae, an 11-year-old who’s also from Oregon.
“This case presents the opportunity for a landmark decision like Brown v. Board of Education (on racial equality) or Obergefell v. Hodges (on marriage equality),” Julia Olson, one of the kids’ lawyers, wrote in a briefing sent to msnbc. It asks the court to decide whether children have a constitutional right to protection from fossil fuel policies that “knowingly create dangerous climate change.”
Olson is executive director of Our Children’s Trust, an Oregon-based nonprofit that has spearheaded climate-related lawsuits in all 50 states. All have fallen short of success in one way or another. But this new federal filing goes further than anything the group – or anyone else – has filed in the past.
It includes a claim by James Hansen, a climate researcher who headed NASA’s Goddard’s Institute for Space Studies for more than 30 years and first warned Congress of global warming in 1988. Hansen’s granddaughter is one of the plaintiffs, and Hansen himself—fresh from calling Obama’s climate change policies “practically worthless”—is listed as a "guardian for future generations."
"We have a global climate emergency," Hansen said on Wednesday. "I aim to testify on behalf of young people. Their future hangs in the balance."
The suit also debuts a new legal framework to fight climate change, one that portrays federal support for the development and use of fossil fuels as a violation of the Fifth and Ninth Amendments, as well as the public trust doctrine.
The trust doctrine treats nature as a public trust, protected by government, paid to future generations. The same principle allows states to regulate fishing and hunting. In the complaint, the kids’ lawyers claim that the climate system is the ultimate resource, one that encompasses the resources of water and air already recognized by the courts.
The Fifth and Ninth Amendment argument is more complicated. The lawsuit alleges that the U.S. government knowingly fouled the atmosphere, ignored a half century of its own research and failed to enact proposed plans that could have kept carbon emissions within a scientifically accepted safe range. The resulting degradation, according to the lawsuit, is a violation of the kids’ rights to due process and equal protection.
In the Netherlands in June, an organization partnered with Our Children’s Trust won a similar case against the Dutch government. The plaintiffs asked the court to force deeper cuts to carbon emissions country-wide. And it worked: the judge ordered the Dutch government to decrease emissions.
“I think we’re taking extreme action because we need extreme change,” said Kelsey Julianna, a 19-year-old plaintiff. “But I don’t even think this is that extreme. We’re just advocating for our rights.”