Landmark youth climate lawsuit picks up steam

Last week, a landmark climate change lawsuit brought by 21 youth from across the U.S. against the federal government hit another major milestone. U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken presided over the latest hearing in the case, Juliana et al v. US Gov, that could be described as David v. Goliath.

The suit alleges that the federal government knowingly put the rights of young Americans and future generations at risk by failing to regulate greenhouse gas emissions and address climate change. And, as if fighting the federal government was not challenging enough, the fossil fuel industry has voluntarily inserted itself as a co-defendant in the suit, joining to fight alongside the federal government in court. In any context, the behavior of the federal government is perverse. These 21 young people stand on one side of history, as their own government stands hand-in-hand with the fossil fuel industry on the other.

“We’re just trying to get to the championship...and, you know, the trophy would be a safe future.”

                                                          — youth Plaintiff Victoria Barrett


One of the Plaintiffs is our own ACE Action Fellow, Victoria Barrett, of White Plains, New York. Like the other Plaintiffs she missed days of school to attend the hearing. Just hours after the hearing, she faced a grueling travel schedule to get home, taking a redeye back to New York City, with a stopover, before deplaning and heading straight to school. But none of that mattered as she exited the courthouse, beaming with pride and excitement with her fellow Plaintiffs on the steps of the U.S. District Courthouse in Eugene, OR.

Victoria had every reason to be excited. During the hearing, Judge Aiken wasted no time in questioning the government’s litigator about the federal government’s position to fight this lawsuit. She challenged the attorney to consider "the flip side of the coin," that this case could provide a welcomed opportunity to boost the Obama Administration's push to tackle climate change. She referenced the court’s historic role in helping to usher in change when the Executive and Legislative branches are unable to act fast enough. She cited the examples of the Supreme Court's rulings to act with “all deliberate speed” in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case and the recent Obergefell v. Hodges case, making it clear that she sees the court's role in addressing the urgency climate change in line with the court's swift action in addressing school desegregation and marriage equality.

On the steps of the courthouse after the hearing, Julia Olson of Our Children’s Trust, the lead litigator for the Plaintiffs, shared what she hopes will happen next. “If [the President] believes that he wants to do something about [climate change], he can sit down in a room with these Plaintiffs and talk about a settlement of the case that would put the nation on the right trajectory away from fossil fuels and towards clean energy.”

Judge Aiken will issue a ruling within the next 60 days on whether to uphold the Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin’s denial of a motion by the federal government and fossil fuel industry lawyers to dismiss the case. If she upholds the decision, the case will continue on the path to trial. But however the ruling falls, it will almost certainly be appealed by the losing party.

Victoria and her good friend and fellow Plaintiff, Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, say they will keep fighting until the government takes clear and direct action to regulate greenhouse gas emissions and protect their future. “We’re just trying to get to the championship,” Victoria added, “and, you know, the trophy would be a safe future.”

Josh Walker

Josh is the Associate Director of Marketing and Technology at ACE. Josh has experience as an environmental educator and community organizer. He is a locavore and tiny house enthusiast. He lives in Sebastopol, CA with his wife, Anna, and their kale-loving dog, Otto.