by Lorraine McCarty
Juliana v. United States has been working its way thought federal courts since 2015, when it was filed on behalf of 21 children trying to stop the United States from using fossil fuels. The plaintiffs say that fossil fuels are causing climate change, endangering their future, and denying their rights to life, liberty and property. This story was reported by Steve Kroft on the March 3 edition of “60 Minutes.”
Kelsey Juliana, the oldest of the plaintiffs, was 19 when the lawsuit was filed in 2015 in Oregon. Juliana lives in Oregon’s Cascade Mountains, where she has had to deal with droughts and wildfires. She talked on this show about being unable to go outside because the air quality was so bad. She said that scientists have told her it’s bad for health and that the federal government said in its response to the suit that the effects of climate change are already happening, and young people could have to deal with those effects for the long term.
The youngest plaintiff, Levi Drehan, is now in sixth grade and lives with his family on a barrier island in Florida, which is only one mile wide and just barely above sea level. He is afraid he won’t have a house in the future. The other 19 children from 10 states involved in the lawsuit also worry about the effects of climate change on their lives.
While many people did not take the lawsuit very seriously at first, it is still winding its way through the courts, and two motions by the government to delay or dismiss the case have been rejected twice by the U.S. Supreme Court. The plaintiffs have amassed such a huge body of evidence that it will surprise even skeptics and is forcing the government to admit that the crisis is real.
The children are represented by Julia Olsen, an Oregon attorney and director of the nonprofit For Our Children’s Trust. A timeline that goes back 50 years lines the walls of the organization’s office. The timeline shows that for the past 50 years, all government administrations knew about the connection between fossil fuels and climate change and that every president since Lyndon Johnson was aware that fossil fuels were causing climate change. The evidence against the government, said Olsen, totals 36,000 pages and will be used in court. For 50 years, Olsen added, the government was briefed regularly by the national security community and the scientific community about climate change. She noted that government attorneys do not want it to go to trial because they know they will lose, given the evidence that will be presented. Attorneys for the federal government have admitted in court that the government knew the burning of fossil fuels would cause climate change, that the government does not dispute the claim that the planet is in a danger zone because of the effects of climate change, and that the government does not dispute that climate change is a threat to people’s lives and safety. The defendants also admit that human activity, particularly elevated concentrations of greenhouse gasses, is likely the dominant cause of observed warming that has occurred since the mid-1990s and that greenhouse-gases have been at unprecedented levels for at least 2.6 million years-resulting in an unprecedented loss of life, the extinction of many species, an increase in the intensity of hurricanes and severe storms, an increase in precipitation, an increase in the loss of sea ice, and rising sea levels. The government also has acknowledged that the effect of climate change on agriculture will lead to food scarcity.
Olsen said that Juliana v. United States is the easiest case she has ever litigated because she simply is using the government’s own words to prove her case. Olsen said that because the government has failed to protect the country’s air, water, forests and coastlines, the lawsuit is asking the defendants to devise a plan to wean the country off fossil fuels by the middle of this century. In his reporting, Kroft noted that some people say the abandonment of fossil fuels will cause economic disruption, to which Olsen responded, “If we don’t address climate change in this country, economists across the board say that we are in for economic crises we have never seen before.”
Kroft asked Olsen why the federal government was responsible for climate change. Olsen told Kroft the government is to blame because it subsidies the country’s fossil fuel energy systems, allows every aspect of the country’s fossil fuel energy system to exist and allows energy companies to extract fossil fuels from public lands.
Ann Aiken, a federal judge in Eugene, Oregon, denied a motion to dismiss the case, saying that “exercising my reasoned judgment . . . I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society.” The courts have never before recognized a constitutional right to a stable climate and there is no passage in the constitution that says this, but she believed it was not a stretch. Justice Department briefs have called the lawsuit misguided, unprecedented and unconstitutional. The briefs also argue that energy policy is the legal responsibility of the Congress and the White House and not a single judge and that climate change is a complicated global problem that cannot be solved by the United States alone.
The next oral arguments in the case will be in June in Portland, Oregon. While it is impossible to predict how both storms and lawsuits are likely to end, one environmental attorney notes that courts have been asked the government to do bold things in the past, such as desegregation (Brown v. Board of Education) and that perhaps this case will be similar.