Updates to our Terms of Use

We are updating our Terms of Use. Please carefully review the updated Terms before proceeding to our website.

Monday, December 11, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Feds Grilled Over Climate Change Flip-Flop

With two weeks left in Barack Obama’s presidency, lawyers for the government acknowledged in a court filing that climate change is caused by humans and that its effects could be catastrophic. On Friday, the lawyer who authored that document couldn’t tell a judge whether the Trump administration would now reverse its position and deny that climate change is real.

EUGENE, Ore. (CN) – With two weeks left in Barack Obama’s presidency, lawyers for the government acknowledged in a court filing that climate change is caused by humans and that its effects could be catastrophic. On Friday, the lawyer who authored that document couldn’t tell a judge whether the Trump administration would now reverse its position and deny that climate change is real.

“We haven’t received any guidance from on high, so we don’t know yet,” Justice Department lawyer Sean Duffy told U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin at Friday’s hearing in the Wayne Morse Courthouse.

Nearly two dozen teens and climate scientist James Hanson sued the federal government in August 2015, claiming the government has known for half a decade that climate change imperils the future of humanity, but made things worse by continuing to hand subsidies and permits to the fossil-fuel industry and other global polluters.

Under Obama, the government issued an answer to the complaint that acknowledged many of the kids’ allegations as true.

But since the election of President Donald Trump, the government has slashed the budget for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, deleted scientific data from the agency’s website and issued a gag order for agency employees.

That abrupt shift made the task uncertain for the kids’ lawyer Julia Olson. Olson demanded evidence from the government going back until at least 1965 that she said would show the government’s “deliberate indifference” to the hazards it was causing by failing to stop climate change.

On Friday, Judge Coffin suggested that was unnecessary.

“The government has admitted a number of significant admissions that the plaintiffs made in their complaint,” the judge said.

He then read aloud from the government’s answer to the complaint, listing a fraction of the dozens of claims from the lawsuit that the government had agreed were true.

“To quote just some, you have admitted that: global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide are at unprecedentedly high levels compared to the past 800,000 years of historical data and pose risks to human health and welfare; that from 1850 to 2012, carbon dioxide emissions from within the United States comprised more than 25 percent of global emissions; that there is a scientific consensus that the buildup of greenhouse gasses due to human activities is changing the global climate at a pace and in a way that threatens human health and the natural environment; that in 2013, daily average atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations exceeded 400 parts per million for the first time in millions of years; that monthly global average carbon dioxide concentrations reached levels unprecedented for at least 2.6 million years and that the earth has now warmed about 0.9 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures,” the judge said.


“You further admit that climate change is damaging human and natural systems, increasing the risk of loss of life, and requiring adaptation on larger and faster scales than current species have successfully achieved in the past, potentially increasing the risk of extinction or severe disruption for many species; that current and projected atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gasses threaten the public health and welfare of current and future generations, and this threat will mount over time as greenhouse gasses continue to accumulate in the atmosphere and result in ever greater rates of climate change; that human activity is likely to have been the dominant cause of observed warming since the mid-1900s and that climate change is likely to increase cancer, cardiovascular disease, stroke, toxic exposures, mental health and stress disorders.”

Judge Coffin then asked whether the Justice Department, now under the authority of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and President Trump, planned to walk back everything it had acknowledged in the case under the previous administration.

“Has the government officially retreated from any of these admissions?” Coffin asked. “Are these admissions not binding on the government, after having been made in the government’s answer?”

Duffy, the same attorney with the Justice Department who signed the answer from which the judge had just read aloud, said he didn’t know.

“The administration certainly could move to amend, to the extent any of its positions are different,” Duffy said. “However, we do not have a position from leadership and I could not say with certainty one way or the other yet.”

To which Coffin countered, “The reason I ask is because I don’t live in a vacuum. I note in media accounts that the administration has rolled back many of the regulations that were in place regarding greenhouse gasses. It has slashed the budget substantially that was intended to combat climate change and has announced plans to increase significantly the fossil fuels discussed in this lawsuit. That would seem to speak to what position the government is going to be taking.”

The courtroom fell silent for about 20 seconds.

“Any comment on that?” Judge Coffin asked.

There was another pause.

“All I can tell you is that I read the executive order and the order itself does not roll back regulations, although I would not call your characterization incorrect,” Duffy said. “Your characterization is correct.”

Frank Volpe, attorney for three oil and manufacturing associations who intervened as defendants in the case, also declined to indicate his clients’ position on climate change.

“I’m not sure why the intervenor’s position is relevant,” Volpe said. “The response the government made is their response. Why would the intervenor defendants need to wade into this area?”

Judge Coffin explained the relevance.

“Why it’s relevant is, if I was trying this case, I would be wondering: what is your position on climate change?” he said. “Is it consistent with the government’s? You said the role of intervenors is to offer expert testimony. Expert on what subject? What position are the intervenors going to take?”

Vophy changed the subject to the “red herrings” he said the teens were raising.

Judge Coffin then encouraged Olson and her clients to limit their arguments to the science behind their claims and the dangers facing future generations if climate change continues.

“Given the admissions of the government that are here in the record, that the government is admitting yes, there is human-caused climate change and yes, it’s going to have a severe effect on human lives going forward if it continues, including causing the extinction of certain species – given those admissions, my question to plaintiffs is, why do you need to show who knew what and when and why where we are today as opposed to demonstrating the facts of climate change and the dangers going forward unless remedies are put in place to address it?” the judge asked.

Why do you need to get the specifics of when they knew what they knew when they admit they know it today?” he added.

Olson said she wanted to lay the groundwork for future appeals.

“That evidence will show a systematic pattern for decades of knowing the destructive potential of climate change and then making choices to continue that path through federal approvals and programs that have put us in the catastrophic position we are in,” Olson said. “We want to present the best possible evidence and want to have a solid appeal one day to take to the Ninth Circuit and ultimately to the Supreme Court.”

The government has asked the court to rule on whether it can appeal its refusal to dismiss to the Ninth Circuit. Judge Coffin said he would do his best to expedite the ruling.

Follow @@karinapdx
Categories / Environment, Government, Science

Subscribe to Closing Arguments

Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.