Youth Activists Sue U.S. Government For Ruining The Environment

Climate change is heating up the courtrooms

Earth Justice

Earth Justice

New lawsuits are entering the courts, with the fate of the earth on the line.Tori Rector/Flickr CC by SA 2.0

Less than two months after Dutch citizens won a lawsuit demanding their government do something about climate change, similar cases are entering courts here in the United States. The latest entrant into the legal environmental battle is a group of 21 young Americans ranging in age from eight to 19 (minors had the suit brought by their legal guardians).

The plaintiffs live in areas throughout the country, but many of them live in Oregon, where the suit was brought. All say they have been impacted by climate change, from a group of teenagers who grew up playing in the snow and watched as less and less snow fell over the years to a boy living in Florida who may lose his home to rising sea levels.

The lawsuit demands that the government stop supporting fossil fuels, and bring CO2 levels under control.

The Complaint alleges the Federal Government is violating the youth’s constitutional rights by promoting the development and use of fossil fuels. These young Plaintiffs are challenging the federal government’s national fossil fuel programs, as well as the proposed Jordan Cove LNG export terminal in Coos Bay, OR. Plaintiffs seek to hold President Obama and various federal agencies responsible for continued fossil fuel exploitation. The Federal Government has known for decades that fossil fuels are destroying the climate system. No less important than in the Civil Rights cases, Plaintiffs seek a court order requiring the President to immediately implement a national plan to decrease atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (“CO2”) to a safe level: 350 ppm [parts per million] by the year 2100.

Listed as defendants are President Obama and members of his cabinet in their respective offices. Departments singled out in particular include the Environmental Protection Agency, the State Department, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Transportation, among others.

Obama and the EPA recently announced a final version of the Clean Power Plan, which does aim to reduce CO2 emissions dramatically. But reaching a consistent level of 350 ppm of CO2 by 2100 may still be a challenge. We hit an average of 400 ppm earlier this year.

So, what's the likelihood that these kids will win their lawsuit? The Dutch victory might not be the best comparison (given that the Netherlands and United States have different legal systems) but there are similar cases in the United States.

Many of these lawsuits are being brought by the non-profit group, Our Children's Trust, an organization that is also involved in the new Oregon lawsuit. In June, eight children won a lawsuit in Washington state when they asked the state's Department of Ecology to issue rules limiting the amount of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, that can be emitted into the air. A similar case in Oregon is still enmeshed in the appeals process.