Twenty-one children and young adults were looking forward on Tuesday to bringing their climate lawsuit against the federal government to trial in the coming weeks, following a U.S. District Court ruling arguing that the plaintiffs have made a convincing case that the Trump and Obama administrations have failed to curb carbon emissions even as they knew of the pollution's myriad harmful effects.
Judge Ann Aiken handed down the ruling late Monday in a court in Eugene, Oregon, affirming that the plaintiffs can credibly claim that their due process rights have been violated by the government and fossil fuel companies—an argument the young people are more than ready to make in court starting October 29, when the case is set to go to trial.
Following the decision, 21-year-old Tia Hatton said in a statement, "My fellow plaintiffs and I have our eyes set on one thing: our trial date...We—my lawyers, our experts, and my co-plaintiffs and I—are ready to make our case against the U.S. federal government and their deliberate energy policy that cause catastrophic climate change."
"My fellow plaintiffs and I have our eyes set on one thing: our trial date...We are ready to make our case against the U.S. federal government and their deliberate energy policy that cause catastrophic climate change." —Tia Hatton, plaintiffThe lawsuit, Juliana vs. The United States, was first filed in 2015 under the Obama administration, with the 21 plaintiffs, then ranging in age from eight to 19, arguing with the help of Our Children's Trust that the government's actions that have worsened carbon emissions have "violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources."
The children pointed to increasingly frequent and destructive extreme weather events, rising sea levels, and droughts in their hometowns across the U.S. as evidence of their claim, and since then have called expert witnesses including climate scientist James Hansen and economist Joseph Stiglitz to bolster their case.
The young people "proffered uncontradicted evidence showing that the government has historically known about the dangers of greenhouse gases but has continued to take steps promoting a fossil fuel based energy system, thus increasing greenhouse gas emissions," said Aiken in her ruling.
Aiken dismissed President Donald Trump as a defendant in the lawsuit, but she did so "without prejudice"—meaning the youths can bring a case against him later on. Other Trump administration officials who head government agencies can still be named in the current case.
"The District Court continues to provide well-reasoned decisions that narrow and appropriately frame the heart of this case for trial," said Julia Olson, executive director of Our Children's Trust. "We are ready to bring all of the facts forward and prove these youths' case once and for all."
The federal government has for three years attempted to have the case dismissed by arguing that extreme weather events and pollution levels happen around the world, not only in the U.S., and that, as one Justice Department lawyer put it in 2016, "There simply is no constitutional right to a pollution-free environment." Aiken vehemently rejected the argument:
Where a complaint alleges knowing governmental action is affirmatively and substantially damaging the climate system in a way that will cause human deaths, shorten human lifespans, result in widespread damage to property, threaten human food sources, and dramatically alter the planet's ecosystem, it states a claim for a due process violation. To hold otherwise would be to say that the Constitution affords no protection against a government's knowing decision to poison the air its citizens breathe or the water its citizens drink.
"Judge Aiken's blockbuster decision lays out in extremely precise detail the factual and legal issues in our case which remain to be resolved at trial," Alex Loznak, a 21-year-old plaintiff, said. "Having contributed extensive personal testimony and research to help develop our case's factual record over the past several years, I am confident that our arguments on the remaining disputed issues will ultimately prevail in court. We still need a full and fair trial to prove our case. October 29, here we come!"