(By Ariana Snyder) Juliana v. United States was brought by 21 youth plaintiffs against the U.S. government for violating their Fifth Amendment rights to life, liberty, property, and public trust resources. The lawsuit is the first of its kind to argue that there is a constitutional right to a safe and livable environment. All youths assert that they have been detrimentally injured by climate change. For example, one plaintiff states that due to climate change a massive storm dumped heavy rain on her home in Southern Louisiana causing storm water and sewage flooding; other plaintiffs assert respiratory problems due to wildfire smoke and longer pollen seasons. Almost all of the plaintiffs raise psychological distress as a result of the changing climate. The lawsuit specifically asks the Oregon courts to order the United States government to prepare a plan on how to lower global carbon dioxide levels.
The lawsuit has helped bring attention to key issues in the ongoing public debate about climate change policy. Politicians, government lawyers, and the U.S. Department of Justice have argued that climate policy should be left to Congress and the Executive Branch, some even going as far as to argue that the Courts do not have jurisdiction over climate change lawsuits. Essentially, the argument hinges on the idea that climate policy must be addressed by the political process- voting, policy, representation, etc. This puts the youth plaintiffs in an untenable position. As youths, they are not permitted to participate in the political process since they may not vote. In fact, the future generations that the lawsuit hopes to advocate for cannot participate in the political process either. Yet, it is the youth and unborn future generations that will be impacted most by the government’s failure to solve today’s climate change problem. At present, the plaintiffs are waiting for a ruling on their Motion for Leave to File a Second Amended Complaint and a Motion to Intervene.
In addition to Juliana v. United States, Our Children’s Trust has other cases pending in state courts and elsewhere across the world. For example, on March 13, 2020, the organization helped 16 youths in Montana file a constitutional climate lawsuit, arguing that Montana is violating their state constitutional rights to a clean and healthful environment. The plaintiffs and attorneys are currently gathering evidence and preparing for trial, which is scheduled for early 2023. Our Children’s Trust also participates in global cases. For instance, the organization is currently helping with the case Jóvenes v. Gobierno de México, where 15 youth plaintiffs are requesting the Mexican government comply with its constitutional obligations and issue regulations concerning Mexico’s climate change law. Currently, the plaintiffs are preparing for a hearing in 2022.
Working on the cutting edge of climate change litigation and pushing the law beyond conventional doctrine has not come without difficulties and setbacks. Yet, there are few causes as worthy as advocating for the welfare of children and unborn future generations who will suffer the most from climate change. With her dedication to ensuring a livable planet for current and future generations, Julia Olson is truly a deserving recipient of the Katharine and George Alexander Prize.