“This is no ordinary lawsuit,” Judge Ann Aiken said, referring to Juliana Versus the United States in a recent CBS 60 Minutes segment (see video at end of the article). Filed on behalf of 21 kids in 2015, the case is still facing resistance from the federal government for alleging the US has knowingly failed to protect American citizens, especially children, from climate change.
The lawsuit, spearheaded by Oregon lawyer Julia Olson, aims to block the US from continuing the use of fossil fuels. What this has accomplished before even entering a courtroom — acknowledgment by the government of the current climate change crisis.
The plaintiffs, who range in age from 11 to 21, claim the government’s relationship with the fossil fuel industry is endangering their future and violating their constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property. Lead plaintiff Kelsey Juliana, a college student, grew up in Eugene, Oregon as an environmental activist. She’s been shocked by the increase in wildfires in her hometown and their impact on wildlife and human health.
Juliana attests the lawsuit “is everything… it’s the climate case” and that “we have everything to lose if we don’t act right now.”
The youngest plaintiff, Levi Draheim, is in sixth grade. 60 Minutes reporter Steve Kroft reminds Draheim he’s suing the United States government at only 11 years old — not a typical after-school activity. Draheim is well aware of the gravity of his position; he spent his childhood on a Florida barrier island, a mile wide and barely above sea level. He “fears that he won’t have a home [there] in the future … that the island will be underwater, because of climate change.”
As a result of this case, the federal government has been forced to acknowledge the current impact of climate change: wildfires, floods and other extreme climate events. These effects are likely to get worse, finding young people coming of age in a world where dangerous weather and health threats are the norm.
The defendants also admit the U.S government has known for more than 50 years that burning fossil fuels would cause climate change. Not in dispute — that the American public is currently in a climate-change danger zone. A danger that’s a threat to the US economy, national security, and the lives and safety of citizens.
Perhaps most significantly, the US government recognizes that human activity — elevated concentrations of greenhouse gases in particular — is likely to have been the dominant cause of observed global warming since the mid-1900s.
Also confirmed: global carbon dioxide concentrations are at levels unprecedented for at least 2.6 million years. Climate change is increasing the risk of loss of life and the extinction of many species, and brings with it increases in hurricane intensity, higher frequency of intense storms, loss of sea ice and rising sea levels.
Olson, with the help of her legal team, has accumulated 36,000 pages of evidence against the U.S. government — a hard case to beat in court. She’s worked for eight years to piece together a timeline documenting what past administrations knew about the connection between fossil fuels and climate change, and how soon they knew it. The timeline dates back over 50 years, to a Lyndon B. Johnson Administration report acknowledging climate change as a “catastrophic threat.”
Olson has found that no matter the political party, politicians in the White House have been consistently aware of the potential dangers of carbon dioxide emissions. She asserts every president knew burning of fossil fuels was causing global warming, adding that the U.S. government, at the highest levels, was regularly briefed by the scientific and national security communities on the severity of climate change. Olson marvels that this body of evidence is by far “the most compelling she’s ever had, in any case she’s litigated, in over 20 years.”
In a nutshell, Juliana versus the United States claims the executive and legislative branches have proven incapable of dealing with the looming threat of climate change. It argues the government has failed in its obligation to protect the nation’s air, water, forests, and coastlines. It petitions the federal courts to intervene and force the government to come up with a plan that would wean the country off fossil fuels by 2050.
Juliana versus the United States — The Backlash
It’s no surprise then, given the gravity of the case, that the Trump administration has done everything in its power to keep the trial from moving forward. They have appealed Judge Aiken’s decision three times to the California higher court, and twice to the Supreme Court, failing every time.
Olson attests the current administration would be unable to combat the huge body of evidence compiled, which is why they’re resisting trial. She notes that in a courtroom, under oath, “facts are facts … and ‘alternative facts’ are perjury.” Essentially, a president’s climate-change-denial tweets “won’t hold up in a court of law.”
The Justice Department has called the lawsuit “unprecedented, misguided, and unconstitutional” and denies responsibility for climate change. But Olson argues even though the US government doesn’t directly produce carbon dioxide, they’re actively subsidizing and deregulating the fossil fuel industry and allowing fossil fuels to be extracted from public lands. Because of the American government’s decisions, the US is now the largest oil and gas producer in the world.
In one of the most impactful rejections of the government’s attempts to dismiss the case, US District Judge Ann Aiken wrote in an official statement: “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.”
Federal courts have never before recognized a constitutional right to a stable climate, which is why UCLA Professor of Environmental Law Ann Carlson praises Judge Aiken for her claim that it’s not radical to ask the government to protect the health, lives, and property of the nation’s kids.
Carlson says, “Look, if you can’t have your life protected by government policies that save the planet, then what’s the point of having a constitution?” She adds that if the plaintiffs won, the effects would be massive, pulling the federal government out of subsidizing fossil fuels, and into a process of starting to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
Yes, it’s not just the fault of the US — there are several other nations with impactful fossil fuel industries — but this country is responsible for 25% of the carbon dioxide that has accumulated in Earth’s atmosphere. Given the size and potential harm of the United States’ impact on the planet, this case is not only compelling, but urgent. Using kids to demonstrate the future effects of climate change is a smart publicity move, and the young plaintiffs are showing that global warming is a real, imminent threat for them and their families.
Juliana versus the United States is making it clear that kids have a stake in their country and their planet, and will continue fighting for their rights to a sustainable future.