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What’s Next For the Young Plaintiffs Who Sued the U.S. Government?

Court dismisses kids’ climate case, but kids vow to continue the fight

Walrus on Iceberg, Svalbard, Norway.
© Paul Souders / World Foto

Last June, we told you about a climate change-focused court case in which 21 children and young adults sued the United States government, arguing that they have a constitutional right to a climate capable of supporting life.  Earlier this month, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals dealt a setback to the plaintiffs when a three-judge panel, in a split decision, dismissed the case.

The young plaintiffs in Juliana v. U.S. are acutely aware of the impacts of climate change, including ocean-related impacts from sea-level rise, ocean acidification, ocean warming and deoxygenation. Having absorbed more than 90% of the warming caused by greenhouse gases, the ocean bears the brunt of climate change. The range of specific impacts includes stronger hurricanes, diminishing Arctic sea ice and profound shifts to ocean ecosystems, including the die-off of coral reefs. These changes threaten wildlife, imperil fisheries and jeopardize the health of coastal communities and economies.

Juliana plaintiffs asserted that they—and all of us—have a constitutional right to a climate system capable of supporting life. They argued the United States government is violating that right by authorizing fossil fuel extraction and subsidizing the fossil fuel industry. The plaintiffs asked the court to declare that the government is violating the Constitution and to order the government to stop supporting the fossil fuel industry and prepare a plan to ratchet down harmful emissions.

When we wrote about this case last summer, the Juliana plaintiffs were fighting to get a federal court to hear their claims. On January 17, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals handed down its decision. The court agreed with the plaintiffs that climate change is increasing and accelerating, that the United States government understands the risks of climate change and that the government has taken affirmative steps to support actions that contribute to climate change. Nonetheless, the court ordered the case to be dismissed on the grounds that federal courts could not offer an effective remedy.

Climate Kids vs Government
© Our Children's Trust

The majority of the panel found that it was beyond the authority of the federal courts to “order, design, supervise or implement” a plan that would decrease fossil fuel emissions and combat climate change. Instead, the court concluded that the plaintiffs must make their case to the political branches of the government—Congress and the executive branch—or to the country as a whole in order to change the government through the ballot box. One judge on the panel dissented and would have allowed the case to go forward.

While this particular case has hit a major roadblock, the overall fight against climate change is gaining traction, including among a growing number of young people around the world who are seeking to hold governments accountable through advocacy, legislation and litigation. Young people in Colombia, for example, won a landmark lawsuit in 2018 aimed at reducing deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, and they continue to apply pressure to hold their government accountable. Meanwhile, a youth-led coalition in Utah was able to pass the first official recognition of climate change from their state government. Young climate activists are growing in both number and organization, and they represent a powerful new force for change.

True to form, the Juliana plaintiffs have vowed to keep pursuing their case. Lawyers representing the children and young adults have pledged to ask the entire Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals—not just a three-judge panel—to reconsider the ruling to dismiss the lawsuit. The youth plaintiffs themselves have stressed their desire to keep up the fight, saying they intend to move forward and win in the courts. You can learn more about the case and the youth plaintiffs by visiting Our Children’s Trust.

Here at Ocean Conservancy, we’ll continue to follow this lawsuit as the young plaintiffs press their case. And whether it’s in the courts, in Congress, in the executive branch or on the global stage, we’ll continue our work to combat climate change and address its impacts on our ocean and coasts.

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