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Kids Suing Government for Climate Action Attract Influential Allies and Opponents

Kelsey Juliana, center, one plaintiff in the federal suit, observes a moment of silence with her father, Tim Ingalsbee, in Times Square at the People’s Climate March in September 2014. (Photo: Sikay Tang/Moyers & Company)

Twenty-one young Americans and climate scientist James Hansen are suing to compel the government to take dramatic action on climate change, and the case has attracted attention both from powerful lobbyists in Washington and environmental activists around the globe.

The kids are backed by Our Children’s Trust, a group that has organized similar suits against state governments around the country. The group believes that activists have to challenge US climate policy in the courts in order to protect what they see as younger generations’ constitutional right to a habitable planet. Similar cases have been successful in Pakistan and the Netherlands. Because the courts are comparatively insulated from the special-interest money that floods congressional and presidential races, they are well-positioned to give a shove to our federal government, which has responded to climate change more slowly than other developed countries. It’s a story we’ve been following since Bill Moyers interviewed one of the plaintiffs, 18-year-old Kelsey Juliana, in 2014.

The last several days saw two big developments in the suit, which has not yet gone to trial. First, on January 13, an Oregon District Court magistrate judge allowed lobbying groups representing some of America’s biggest polluters to join the case — the National Association of Manufacturers, the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers and the American Petroleum Institute will now be arguing alongside the Obama administration that the young people don’t have a case.

The pairing is an ironic one, given that energy lobbyists and Obama’s regulators are usually at odds when it comes to addressing climate change. All three of the industry groups have been outspoken critics of the administration’s Clean Power Plan, and two of the groups are suing to derail it. But in this case, President Obama, his administration, and the industry are aligned: Should the kids win, a court would order regulators to use climate science to draw up plans that would quickly scale back America’s fossil fuel emissions before the Earth warms past critical tipping points. That’s a directive that both the administration and, of course, the fossil fuel industry don’t want to have to deal with.

Lawyers for the young people have cast the lobbying groups’ intervention as a sign the polluters are on the defensive. “We believe Judge Coffin was wise to allow the fossil fuel industry into our constitutional case,” Philip Gregory, an attorney for Children’s Trust said in a prepared statement last week:

The fossil fuel industry would not want to be in court unless it understood the significance of our case. This litigation is a momentous threat to fossil fuel companies. They are determined to join the federal government to defeat the constitutional claims asserted by these youth plaintiffs. The fossil fuel industry and the federal government lining up against 21 young citizens. That shows you what is at stake here.

Independent lawyers agreed: “I think it shows that [the trade groups] are not utterly certain it will be dismissed,” Michael B. Gerrard, the director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia, who is not affiliated with the case, told us back in November.

Not long after the judge allowed the fossil fuel interests to join the case alongside the government, the young people got some important allies. Two major Catholic groups, one of which includes Pope Francis, announced their support for the youth by filing an amicus brief with the court. In the brief, lawyers for Global Catholic Climate Movement and the Leadership Council of Women Religious argue that “government’s failure to address impending catastrophic harm violates the basic constitutional public trust duty… to protect resources crucial for future human survival and welfare… In the papal encyclical, Laudato Si’, Pope Francis issued a clarion call for ‘the establishment of a legal framework which can set clear boundaries and ensure the protection of ecosystems.’”

Unlike the industry groups, the Catholic groups will not actually participate in the trial. But their support shows that the case has attracted international attention.

The next development will come when a district court judge rules on whether or not the government and fossil fuel industry lobbyists are correct that the case should be thrown out.

Stay tuned: We will continue to report on this story.

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John Light

John Light

John Light is a reporter and digital producer for the Bill Moyers team. His work has appeared at The Atlantic, Grist, Mother Jones, Salon, Slate, Vox and Al Jazeera, and has been broadcast on Public Radio International. He's a graduate of Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. You can follow him on Twitter at @LightTweeting.

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