By: Olivia Klein
A group of young people are fighting to sue the U.S. government in an ongoing case about climate change, which has recently returned to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Juliana v. United States was filed in 2015 by 21 children and young adults who argue that their basic constitutional rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are being violated by the government’s inaction in the face of climate change and subsidizing of fossil fuels. Their direct constitutional argument is that they have a right to a stable climate system. In addition, they claim that the public trust doctrine, which gives the government the responsibility to hold resources such as land, water, and fisheries in trust for its citizens, has been violated. The plaintiffs of Juliana argue that as a trustee of the atmosphere, the government has failed to take measures protecting it, such as limiting fossil fuel use and cutting greenhouse gas emissions, despite having explicit knowledge that combustion of fossil fuels adds carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, harmfully accelerating climate change.
Numerous people have signed on to plaintiff-side amicus briefs filed by international lawyers, members of Congress, and leading public health experts alike. Harvard Law School’s Emmett Environmental Law and Policy Clinic is one such supporter of the case; the clinic filed its own amicus brief in March, authored by Clinic Director Wendy Jacobs, Deputy Director Shaun Goho, and a clinical student, Grant Glovin, ’20. At the Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, Jacobs and Goho supervise students working on litigation and other projects that address a variety of environmental issues, including climate change, renewable energy, and water pollution. In the amicus brief, the authors from the clinic write, “This generation is suffering – and will continue to suffer as they age – harms different from those of prior generations.”
In their argument, Juliana plaintiffs cite public health consequences caused by climate change, such as asthma and allergies from exposure to wildfire and smoke, worsening infectious disease exposures, and food and water insecurity. “There’s a really robust body of scientific literature that supports each of these different kinds of health impacts that are already being observed and are projected to get worse and worse,” Goho told Inside Climate News.
In addition to these immediate bodily harms, experts also point to the future threats facing the next generation, such as the health risks and stress that go along with hurricanes, wildfires, and rising sea levels threatening their homes. “The Juliana generation is going to feel and suffer from those impacts in a way that’s really different and more extreme than what any previous generation has felt,” the amicus brief states.
The federal government has continuously fought for the case to be dismissed, arguing that no single judge can require the government to stop global climate change. Government lawyers point towards the young people’s argument as a “generalized” grievance and suggest that their injuries do not directly correspond to government actions.
On June 4, 2019, the case returned to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where three judges held an hour-long hearing to listen to arguments from both sides. Judges raised questions for both parties, suggesting that the plaintiffs’ approach was too broad while the government’s arguments to shut down the case were too narrow.
The decision the Ninth Circuit Court makes will determine whether the Juliana case will be allowed to proceed to trial in district court.