Young people across the country are suing several government agencies for failing to develop a climate change recovery plan, conduct that amounts to a violation of their constitutional rights, says their lawyer Julia Olson.
Their futures are at stake, say the young plaintiffs.
“Climate change is the biggest issue of our time,” said 13-year-old Xiuhtezcatl Roske-Martinez, a member of nonprofit Kids vs. Global Warming, a plaintiff in the suit.
“It’s not every day you see young people getting involved politically, but the climate crisis is changing all that. Every generation from here on out is going to be affected by climate change,” added Roske-Martinez, who founded environmental nonprofit Earth Guardians and organized successful actions in his hometown of Boulder, Colorado.
The federal suit, which has made its way to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, is part of a groundbreaking nationwide legal campaign spearheaded by youth and backed by some of the world’s leading climate scientists and legal scholars.
The case, filed by five teenagers and two nonprofits — WildEarth Guardians and Kids vs. Global Warming — representing thousands more youth, relies on the public trust doctrine, which requires government to protect resources essential to the survival of all generations.
“With the United States as the largest historic emitter of carbon dioxide, the atmospheric resource cannot be restored without government action,” Olson told Al Jazeera.
Supported by more than 30 environmental and constitutional professors, the young plaintiffs name six federal agencies in their suit — the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Energy and Defense departments.
“The welfare of youth is directly affected by the failure of government to confront human-made climate change, and unless the government acts immediately to rapidly reduce carbon emissions ... youth will face irrevocable harm: the collapse of natural resource systems and a largely uninhabitable nation,” reads the complaint.
In addition to the federal suit, actions were filed in all 50 states, with help from Our Children’s Trust, an Oregon-based nonprofit that supports young people through legal efforts.
The scale of the campaign is unprecedented, according to law professor Mary Wood, faculty director at the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Program at the University of Oregon.
“Never before in the history of our laws have we seen a coordinated set of legal actions on this scale,” she said.
The monumental campaign matches the magnitude of the problem, supporters say.
Xiuhtezcatl Roske-Martinez at a hearing.
Although many cases have applied the public trust doctrine to bodies of water, it has not yet been judicially applied to the climate system, a relatively new concern.
Wood says the logic behind protecting bodies of water also applies to air. “Both are essential resources for our survival,” she said.
The trust’s application to the climate underscores a revolutionary legal strategy known as atmospheric trust litigation (ATL), Wood’s brainchild.
She has refined the public trust doctrine to fit the climate crisis. “Because climate change is a recent phenomenon, there’s no precedent. Judges haven’t had to face the climate crisis.”
But ATL is not a significant departure from how the trust doctrine is already applied, said Wood.
“The purpose of the public trust is to protect critical resources that the public relies on for its very survival and welfare. The atmospheric trust approach simply applies the public trust doctrine to the atmosphere,” she said, adding that the government has a duty to safeguard these resources using “the best available science.”
That science was readily supplied by the young defendants in their complaint.
“We want the government to reduce carbon emissions nationally by 6 percent every year until we get down to 350 parts per million,” Roske-Martinez said.
Those figures came from retired NASA scientist James Hansen, who provided the science undergirding the lawsuit.
Yet some critics argue that it’s not the role of the courts to legislate policy on climate change and that the task is properly left to the legislative and executive branches.