A lawsuit filed by a group of young people in Oregon claiming the American government is negligent in its actions, and lack of action, on climate change has moved forward. The plaintiffs accuse the government of "violating their constitutional rights to life, liberty and property, and their right to essential public trust resources, by permitting, encouraging, and otherwise enabling continued exploitation, production, and combustion of fossil fuels." Federal District Court Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin ruled against an attempt to dismiss the case.
This is only the first step on what will be a very long road through the court system, though. Prospects for the case succeeding remain doubtful, but if it is eventually upheld the implications are enormous.
The nonprofit Our Children's Trust has organized a challenge against the lack of action on human-induced global warming, which will have a negative impact on future generations. The plaintiffs are 21 people aged 8 to 19 and leading climate scientist, Dr. James Hansen. Although the original case was filed in Oregon, where Our Children's Trust is based, and Coffin ruled there, matching cases have been filed around the country, with those in five states pending.
The plaintiffs allege the federal government has a constitutional obligation under the fifth and ninth amendments to take action on matters that threaten their long-term future. Noting that the government has been aware of the dangers of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses for fifty years, they argue the current response represents a dereliction of this duty, and are seeking court orders for tougher action.
The case follows one in the Netherlands that resulted in a court order for a 25 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. The Dutch government had previously been working to a 14 to 17 percent target. The success of that court case has prompted activists worldwide to consider similar actions, but differences in national constitutions, and the make-up of courts, mean prospects vary widely.
“The future of our generation is at stake,” said plaintiff Victoria Barrett, 16, in a statement. “People label our generation as dreamers, but hope is not the only tool we have... I want to do what I love and live a life full of opportunities. I want the generation that follows to have the same chance.”
The importance of the case is one thing all parties agree on. Fossil fuel industry associations were granted defendant status in the case and called it a “direct, substantial threat to our businesses.” Coffin described the case as “unprecedented.”
Coffin ruled the case should proceed because “the debate about climate change and its impact has been before various political bodies for some time now.”
This was one of Coffin's last rulings, as he is retiring this year. The case will next be reviewed by Judge Ann Aiken.
[H/T: Think Progress]