A federal appeals court ruled Wednesday in favor of 21 children and young adults suing the U.S. government for not doing enough to protect their constitutional right to a stable climate.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals judges refused to grant mandamus relief and block the U.S. District Court in Oregon from hearing the suit, which was originally filed by the environmental group Our Children’s Trust in 2015.
A federal judge in Oregon ruled in 2016 the 21 youngsters had standing to sue. President Donald Trump’s administration and oil and gas groups appealed the decision in June 2017. They asked judges to “end this clearly improper attempt to have the judiciary decide important questions of energy and environmental policy” and upset the balance of powers. The Ninth Circuit disagreed.
“There is enduring value in the orderly administration of litigation by the trial courts, free of needless appellate interference,” Judge Sidney Thomas wrote on behalf of the court.
“If appellate review could be invoked whenever a district court denied a motion to dismiss, we would be quickly overwhelmed with such requests, and the resolution of cases would be unnecessarily delayed,” Thomas wrote.
The ruling is a victory for environmental activists seeking to use the courts to force the Trump administration to issue regulations to phase out fossil fuels. Julia Olson, Our Children’s Trust chief counsel, said the ruling gives a “green light for trial.”
Olson’s case on behalf of youngsters argues constitutional rights to life, liberty and property are being violated by the federal government’s failure to enact policies to stop catastrophic global warming.
Plaintiffs say the right to a stable climate comes from the public trust doctrine — the idea certain natural resources should be protected for enjoyment of future generations. Policies to encourage coal, oil and natural gas use violate this principle, plaintiffs argue.
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Our Children’s Trust argues global warming has harmed the youths they represent and will continue to harm them in the future. The government should move “to ensure that atmospheric CO2 is no more concentrated than 350 [parts per million] by 2100 … to stabilize the climate system,” the trust’s complaint demands.
Is there a constitutional right to a stable climate? Can the federal government actually guarantee such a right, even if there is?
“Courts in at least two states have recognized that the public trust doctrine applies to climate change under their state laws — New Mexico and Washington,” Sabin Center for Climate Change Law Executive Director Michael Burger told The Daily Caller News Foundation.
“Here, the federal district court judge found that a federal public trust doctrine can apply,” Burger said but is not part of the lawsuit.
Applying the public trust doctrine to global warming was a way to “circumvent unfavorable political outcomes with legal actions, which runs afoul of non-justiciability limitations,” a 2014 Dartmouth Law Review article by Andrew Ballentine argued.
The Ninth Circuit panel recognized “some of the plaintiffs’ claims as currently pleaded are quite broad, and some of the remedies the plaintiffs seek may not be available as redress,” which would need to be narrowed through litigation.
Anti-fossil-fuel environmental foundations support Our Children’s Trust. The Daily Caller News Foundation found in late 2017 the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation are among those that support the group.