Photo by Children's Trust
April 12, 2018

Youth v. Gov: Challenging the U.S.’s Policy on Climate Change

Stephanie Valenzuela

Every person born a citizen to this nation is imbued with the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But is that really the case in the era of climate change?

A lawsuit filed against the federal government by a coalition of young people asks the same question. Juliana v. US, colloquially known as Youth v. Gov, alleges the United States along with many of its executive departments are liable for the effects of climate change on American populations.

By focusing on the civil culpability of the government in climate change, this case serves to further highlight a shift in the nuance of activism by youth in America.

The lawsuit alleges that the US government has known about the dangers of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from burning fossil fuels for over fifty years and not only allowed, but encouraged, the practice to continue. The youth coalition believes the government infringed upon their rights and those of future generations by legislatively and politically perpetuating the use of fossil fuels. They argue that they will have to cope with the consequences of these policies, like already-rising sea levels.

Specifically, the suit alleges that the government encroached upon the following freedoms: the youth’s Fifth Amendment rights to due process and equal protection under the law, their Ninth Amendment rights to be free from government intrusion upon rights retained by the people — such as “the right to be sustained by our country’s vital natural systems” — and the public trust doctrine in regard to our communal use of the atmosphere.

For many of these young plaintiffs, the Department of Energy’s approval of the exportation of liquified natural gas from Coos Bay, Oregon, which is projected be the largest producer of CO2 emissions in the state, will have a particularly adverse effect.

In addition to this, the group has taken legal action in all fifty states individually to further resist the oil and natural gas industries’ exploitation of resources.

Plaintiffs are seeking injunctive relief in the form of several court orders and declarations, some of which include the following: to declare Section 201 of the Energy Policy Act unconstitutional on its face, rejecting the idea that natural gas imports and exports are always within the public interest; to order the defendants to provide a “consumption-based inventory of CO2”; and to order the defendants to develop a “national remedial plan” to gradually eliminate fossil fuel emissions and reduce atmospheric CO2.

The suit was filed in Oregon in 2015 with the backing of Our Children’s Trust, and a trial date was set for Feb. 5, 2018 following the District Court’s denial of the government’s motions to dismiss the case. Subsequently, the government filed an interim appeal, which was also denied. The next day, the defendants filed a petition for a writ of mandamus, a request for a higher court — in this case, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals — to review a lower court decision.

The defendants’ petition accused the District Court of attempting to overstep the bounds of its role as an impartial judiciary by answering such a political question, and it has been noted for its rarity by both law experts and Our Children’s Trust.

This aspect of the case has already been addressed by U.S. District Court judge Ann Aiken, who wrote the promising order denying the government’s motions to dismiss. In her opinion, Aiken addresses all of the factors — asserted in Baker v. Carr — which have the potential to make a case such a political question that it cannot be heard in the courts. She writes that a “rigorous analysis” is necessary. She argues that federal courts regularly tackle political questions and that they are only prohibited from doing so if one of the Baker factors is “inextricable” from the case.

Aiken concludes that although climate change is a politically charged topic, applying any of the Baker factors to Juliana would require an overbroad interpretation, which has the potential to set a flawed precedent, possibly rendering far too many issues too political for court judgment. She stresses that when it comes to political questions, the courts must “diligently map the precise limits of jurisdiction.”

The Trump administration’s petition has effectively prolonged the trial proceedings, a legal strategy notoriously undertaken by those with abundant resources in an effort to deplete the other side of theirs. Fortunately, this attempt to derail the case was unsuccessful. The Ninth Circuit issued a ruling on March 7, 2018 in favor of the youth plaintiffs, allowing the case to proceed in U.S. District Court in Oregon with Judge Aiken.

By focusing on the civil culpability of the government in climate change, this case serves to further highlight a shift in the nuance of activism by youth in America.

The activism that arose in the aftermath of recent events, like the Parkland shooting, also exemplifies such a paradigm shift. Several survivors of the tragedy have taken to both traditional and social media to vehemently express their dissatisfaction with the state of gun legislation in America, and they organized the “March for Our Lives.” This march, on Washington D.C. and elsewhere, protested inaction surrounding gun violence and mass shootings. In their public appearances, the young activists have called attention to the fact that gun control should be a job that adults handle, but thanks to their lack of proper attention and the heavy-handed involvement of the National Rifle Association in U.S. politics, the youth feel compelled to take action on this issue.

In these instances of perpetuation of injustice by the government and apathy by the public at large, the responsibility to fix these societal ills seems to increasingly fall on young people. Climate change is a condition that becomes more pressing as each year passes, and the youths’ recognition of this, along with their decision to take action, is admirable. It is exciting to see the growing acceptance of young people as authoritative voices when those voices have been historically disregarded. 

These kids were never supposed to have the power to start movements, but here they are — succeeding.