2022 Katharine and George Alexander Prize Recipient Julia Olson – Part 1

(Part of 2 of this piece can be found here)

            On Tuesday, March 29, 2022, Santa Clara University School of Law will honor Julia Olson with the Katharine and George Alexander Prize. Registration for the event is free.  For those unable to attend in-person, the Prize Ceremony will be livestreamed. (As an aside, in 2018, Santa Clara Law School also honored alum Phil Gregory (JD/MBA ’80), who works closely with Julia Olson on her climate change cases, with the Edwin J. Owens Lawyer of the Year Award.) Santa Clara 2L Student Ariana Snyder prepared this 2-part write-up of our honoree and her trail-blazing work:

Part 1 – Julia Olson (By Ariana Snyder):  Julia Olson graduated from the University of California, Hastings College of the Law in 1997.  Her work as an advocate began early in her legal career when she represented various environmental groups working to protect the environment, organic agriculture, and human health. In 2006, on one hot summer day, eight-month pregnant Julia Olson went on a run. The heat was unbearable and so she sought out a place to cool off. Al Gore’s documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” about climate change and the growing planetary emergency happened to play in a local movie theater.

When Julia Olson saw the film, she thought about the child she was pregnant with and the world they would be born into. Her child would be brought into a possibly unsafe planet plagued with climate issues. After coming to this realization and feeling the weight of her children’s future on her shoulders, Julia Olson knew she had to do something to protect her children’s future. A few years later, in 2010, Julia Olson founded Our Children’s Trust to lead a legal campaign on the behalf of all future generations.

Our Children’s Trust is a non-profit public interest law firm that provides campaign-based legal services to youths to protect their legal rights to a safe climate.  She was inspired by the work of one of the world’s most respected climate scientists James Hansen and the Minors Oposa case, a lawsuit in the Philippines brought (and won) by environmental attorney Tony Oposa on behalf of his children against the government. Our Children’s Trust actively works to secure the Earth’s climate system for the present and future generations. Its legal campaign uses a strategy that focuses on media, education, and public engagement, with the goal of ensuring climate recovery planning at various government levels.

 By the following year, Our Children’s Trust planned to file lawsuits in 50 states, but the law firm saw some defeats both in state and federal courts.  After a review of its legal strategy, Our Children’s Trust filed a federal suit in Oregon raising constitutional claims. In 2015 Juliana v. United States was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon.

2022 Katharine and George Alexander Prize Recipient Julia Olson – Part 2:  Juliana v. United States

(Part 1 of this piece can be found here)

(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.