Anne Shaffer is the Executive Director & Lead Scientist of the Coastal Watershed Institute. I…
Lawsuits arguing governments have a human rights obligation to avoid dangerous levels of global warming are becoming increasingly widespread around the world. Climate litigation, an emerging field of law, has seen lawyers test several strategies for challenging climate harm or inaction over the past decade. Beyond human rights, intergenerational inequity is another focus of these suits. Youth activists, unable to vote for the policies necessary to ensure a livable future are turning to the courts for justice, and are proving to be compelling and powerful plaintiffs. CELP has provided legal assistance and support in two such cases; one here in Washington state and one at the federal level.
Aji P. et al. v. Washington
In early 2018, thirteen young people filed a lawsuit in Washington Superior Court alleging that the State of Washington and state agencies and officials violated Washington’s constitution and public trust doctrine through their creation, support, and operation of a “fossil-fuel based energy and transportation system.” The complaint alleged that the plaintiffs “are and will continue to be mutually and adversely impacted by excessive human-caused atmospheric carbon dioxide … concentrations.” The plaintiffs seek declaratory relief, including a declaration that a Washington statute setting greenhouse gas emission reduction targets is facially invalid because it authorizes dangerous levels of carbon dioxide in violation of the plaintiffs’ rights. The plaintiffs also request injunctive relief, including an order requiring the defendants to prepare an accounting of Washington’s greenhouse gas emissions and to develop an “enforceable state climate recovery plan.”
In June 2018 CELP filed an amicus brief—an offer of additional, relevant information or arguments the court may want to consider before making their ruling—on behalf of itself and a coalition of ten other environmental groups, explaining to the Court the importance of a stable and healthful climate to the American concepts of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
In February of 2021 the Washington Appellate Court dismissed Aji P. v. Washington stating that while the Court believes that the right to a stable environment should be fundamental and recognize the extreme harm caused by greenhouse gas emissions, it would be a violation of the separation of powers doctrine for the court to resolve the Youth’s claims.
The Youths deserve a stable environment and a legislative and executive
branch that work hard to preserve it. However, this court is not the vehicle by
which the Youths may establish and enforce their policy goals.
— J. Smith, Washington Court of Appeals Division I
In response to the Appellate Court ruling, the youth plaintiffs filed a petition for discretionary review, which unfortunately, was denied by the State Supreme Court in October 2021. In a dissenting opinion, the Chief Justice noted that the Court of Appeals had concluded that the youth plaintiffs’ claims were not justiciable because there was no remedy the court could provide. The Chief Justice viewed this as “a debatable issue” because a judicial declaration of rights “would be a final and conclusive determination of the controversy irrespective of whether any other relief is requested or granted.” The Chief Justice stated that “[a] declaration of rights from this court is meaningful relief, even if it is not a magic wand that will eliminate climate change.”
In an op-ed penned by two of the youth plaintiffs, Wren Wagenbach and India Briggs, they wrote “And while Chief Justice González wrote a wonderful dissent, he missed one large, looming fact: Climate change kills people and ruins lives. It could be by storm, starvation, drought, poverty, flames or some other form of death brought upon the people by lawmakers in their ivory towers, but actual lives are being lost, and that loss will only accelerate with each passing year. Shouldn’t that be enough to get the courts engaged?”
Juliana v. United States
In 2015, 21 youth, and organizational plaintiff Earth Guardians, filed their constitutional climate lawsuit, Juliana v. United States, against the federal government. Their complaint asserts that through the government’s affirmative actions that cause climate change, it has violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources.
In support of the case, CELP staff attorney Dan Von Seggern took over as counsel for an amicus curiae group— a “friend of the court” that acts as an impartial adviser, often voluntary, to a court of law in a particular case—of history professors in Juliana v. United States.
Since its filing in 2015, Juliana v United States has garnered a lot of attention from both sides of the aisle and the climate “debate”. For a full timeline of events, you can visit the Our Children’s Trust website. A non-profit public interest law firm, Our Children’s Trust provides strategic, campaign-based legal services to youth from diverse backgrounds to secure their legal rights to a safe climate. They have led legal actions in all 50 states in addition to supporting efforts globally, which have led to several significant landmark decisions in other countries such as the watershed Urgenda case in Norway. The ruling that came down in 2019 was the first time a government was found to owe a legal duty of care to protect people from climate harms.
For the Juliana case here in the US, it is currently awaiting a ruling on their Motion for Leave to File a Second Amended Complaint and the Motion to Intervene filed by 18 states, led by Alabama. Despite President Biden’s promises to listen to youth and address the climate crisis, his Department of Justice is still actively opposing the case. These young American plaintiffs have a right to be heard by the nation’s courts and we stand in solidarity with them and their efforts. It is far past time for the delay and avoidance tactics to end; at the bare minimum, the Biden Administration should allow the case to proceed to trial. THE TIME FOR CLIMATE JUSTICE IS NOW.
7. Youth Climate Lawsuits