Victory for Young Citizens in Standing to Sue on Climate Change

Younger kids have recently won the right to sue the U.S. government because of the serious threat change of the climate represents to their future. Those who are not lawyers or do not have considerable legal knowledge may not realize that this is a significant victory, as many cases to sue the U.S. government are dismissed for not having (in many a court’s words) “standing to sue.”

A bright speck of climate news was quickly overshadowed by the presidential election this week. America’s children have officially won the right to sue their government over global warming.

Yesterday, a lawsuit filed by 21 youth plaintiffs was ruled valid by US District Judge Ann Aiken in Eugene, Oregon. A group of citizens, whose ages range from nine to 20, charged President Obama, the fossil fuel industry, and other federal agencies with violating their constitutional rights by declining to take action against climate change.

“Federal courts too often have been cautious and overly deferential in the arena of environmental law, and the world has suffered for it,” wrote Judge Aiken in her ruling.

Along with renowned climate scientist James Hansen, who in 1988 pleaded with Congress to consider the harmful effects of greenhouse gas emissions, the youth group was applauded by activists who saw their lawsuit as a much-needed beacon of hope for future generations. In it, the plaintiffs accused the US government and energy trade industries of endangering their rights to life, liberty, property, and to vital public trust resources.

In her ruling, Judge Aikin found little truth to the defendants’ complaints. She declared the facts of man-made climate change “undisputed,” and supported the plaintiffs’ challenge to hold national powers accountable for the damages caused by global warming.

Aikin wrote: “This action is of a different order than the typical environmental case. It alleges that defendants’ actions and inactionswhether or not they violate any specific statutory dutyhave so profoundly damaged our home planet that they threaten plaintiffs’ fundamental constitutional rights to life and liberty.”

The youth group’s victory is significant not only in itself, but also for the precedent it sets for other federal climate lawsuits. Last year, a judge in the Netherlands ruled in favor of Dutch plaintiffs, ordering the country to lower emissions by 25 percent of their 1990 levels within five years. This marked the first time a court had decided that states should have “independent legal obligations toward their citizens,” according to the group’s lawyer.

This week’s decision is especially important as countries seek to fulfill their Paris Agreement pledges. Now that the treaty is in legal effect, members are expected to their curb carbon emissions through various means, though many fossil fuel groups have yet to endorse plans for developing alternative energy sources.

“My generation is rewriting history. We’re doing what so many people told us we were incapable of doing: holding our leaders accountable for their disastrous and dangerous actions,” Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, a 16-year-old plaintiff in the climate change case, said in a statement.

The lawsuit is one of several state and federal legal actions spearheaded by Our Children’s Trust, a civic engagement nonprofit that advocates for young people and environmental issues.

“I and my co-plaintiffs are demanding justice for our generation and justice for all future generations,” Martinez added. “This is going to be the trial of our lifetimes.”