On Wednesday, a group of kids and teenagers will face off in an Oregon courtroom against the US government and the fossil fuel industry. The young people, from states as far away as Florida, Arizona, New York, Hawaii, and Alaska, are suing President Obama and several federal agencies for inaction on climate change. The group includes Nathaniel, a teenager from Fairbanks whose asthma has worsened with the wildfires that now sweep across Alaska each summer; Alex, whose family farm in Oregon has been parched by record heat waves and drought; Journey, a member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe living in Hawaii, whose family fled from flooding in 2012; and Levi, an 8-year-old who lives on a low-lying barrier island in Florida that is already grappling with sea level rise.
“For over fifty years, the United States of America has known that carbon dioxide (“CO2”) pollution from burning fossil fuels was causing global warming and dangerous climate change, and that continuing to burn fossil fuels would destabilize the climate system on which present and future generations of our nation depend for their wellbeing and survival,” reads their complaint, which was filed in September by Our Children’s Trust, an Oregon-based nonprofit that has brought a series of similar suits at the state level. “Despite this knowledge, Defendants continued their policies and practices of allowing the exploitation of fossil fuels.”
The heart of their argument is that government, by failing to significantly cut greenhouse gas emissions, is violating young people’s Fifth and Ninth Amendment rights to due process and equal protection, as well as the “public trust” doctrine, which holds that certain natural resources must be protected for public use. Climate inaction is a form of discrimination, they argue, because young people will be impacted more severely by climate change than the current generation of policymakers. The suit asks the court to order the government to “cease their permitting, authorizing, and subsidizing of fossil fuels and, instead, move to swiftly phase out CO2 emissions.”
Climate activist and former NASA climatologist James Hansen is included in the suit as a “guardian for future generations.” “This lawsuit is made necessary by the at-best schizophrenic, if not suicidal, nature of US climate and energy policy,” Hansen wrote in a declaration accompanying the complaint. “Our government’s permitting of additional, new, or renewed fossil fuel projects is entirely antithetical to its fundamental responsibility to our children and their posterity. Their fundamental rights now hang in the balance.” Lawyers for the young plaintiffs have likened the case to landmark discrimination suits Brown v Board of Education, which struck down segregation in schools, and Obergefell v. Hodges, which guaranteed the right to marry to same-sex couples.
The public trust doctrine has most commonly been used to ensure public access to waterways, though environmentalists have recently begun extending it challenge fossil fuel development. In 2014, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court found that a law intended to expedite fracking in the Marcellus Shale violated a public trust provision in the state constitution that ensures a “right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment,” and charges the state government to “conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.”