Why Young Americans Are Suing Obama Over Climate Change

Plaintiffs could see the "trial of the millennium" on climate change

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Eugene; Oregon; Environmental; Trial; federal; courthouse
Dr. James Hansen co-filed the climate suit last summer along with 21 young Americans. Robin Loznak/Zuma/Corbis

In Eugene, Oregon, earlier this week, a federal district judge heard oral arguments from lawyers representing President Obama, a range of federal agencies and the fossil fuel industry on their motions to dismiss a landmark climate lawsuit, one climate observers call "the most important case on the planet right now."

The suit was filed last summer by 21 young Americans between the ages of 8 and 19, and climate scientist Dr. James Hansen, who have taken to the courts to legally force the administration to enact a bold, science-based climate plan. In withering detail, the complaint lays out how the government has known since the 1960s that carbon pollution from burning fossil fuels directly contributes to global warming and a destabilized atmosphere, and yet continues to aggressively promote and subsidize fossil fuel extraction. This endangers the health and wellbeing of youth and future generations and, the plaintiffs contend, violates their constitutional rights to life, liberty and property. The suit draws also from the Public Trust Doctrine, the established legal principle stating that the government holds certain natural resources in trust for present and future generations.

Wednesday's mood was jubilant. Hundreds of teen supporters watched from packed overflow rooms as government lawyers argued that a federal public trust doctrine doesn't exist and that nothing in the Constitution guarantees a pollution-free environment. Lawyers for the fossil fuel industry complained that allowing the case to move forward would be "seemingly odd" — and redundant, too, since "Congress has adopted a scheme to deal with this."

Given that Obama is working to secure his climate legacy, it's jarring for the administration and the fossil fuel industry to be on the same side. The original suit named Obama and multiple federal agencies, including the EPA and the Departments of Energy, Interior, Agriculture and Defense. In November, calling the lawsuit "a direct threat" to their business, trade groups representing a majority of the fossil fuel industry petitioned to join the suit as defendants.

"People should be enraged," says attorney Julia Olson, who argued the plaintiffs' case Wednesday and spoke to Rolling Stone last week. Olson is executive director of Our Children's Trust, the Oregon non-profit that's brought nearly two dozen climate cases around the country using the emerging legal strategy called Atmospheric Trust Litigation. "This is the part of democracy that people don't see, but when you watch government lawyers, side by side with industry lawyers, stand up in front a judge and say these kids don't have a right to be protected against catastrophic climate change, and the U.S. Constitution doesn't protect that right, that's powerful."

The Public Trust Doctrine forms a central part of the case: Is the federal government a public trustee, and can the beneficiaries sue it for violating the public trust? "If you read the position the federal government is taking, to me it's outrageous," says Olson. "If the Founding Fathers read that brief, it would incite revolution. Everything they're saying is really counter to all of our constitutional history.

"But there hasn't been a case that's squarely presented this question. The reason it hasn't come up is that it's just been assumed that the federal government is a public trustee. It's in statutory law, it's everywhere. But this is the first time in history that I'm aware of where the government is arguing that it has no obligation and that the beneficiaries can't bring suit."

A decision is expected in the next couple of months; if the case goes forward, Olson says it will be the "trial of the millennium," with real climate science taking center stage. "You'll have the best facts and the best experts testifying in a court of law about what is really happening and what is, as we currently understand it, the maximum level of CO2 we should have in order to preserve our fundamental rights. Both sides can present experts and maybe there will be agreement. It gets that political fray outside the courthouse and you're just dealing with the facts and law and what needs to be done. It'll be huge."

Adds 15-year-old activist and plaintiff Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, "We've taken to the streets, and now we are taking to the courts. When you look at past movements, that's how change has been made. By diversifying our tactics and targeting the system that's stealing our constitutional rights to a healthy atmosphere, we're directly creating this climate revolution.

"This is not against Obama. It's to bring forth a solution."

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