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Friday, June 14, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Kids Sue Feds Over Global Warming

PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) - Continuing to burn fossil fuels violates the Ninth Amendment rights of future generations and today's children, according to a lawsuit filed by prominent NASA scientist Dr. James Hansen and nearly two dozen children.

Lead plaintiff Kelsey Cascadia Rose Juliana, along with the nonprofit Earth Guardians and Dr. Hansen, sued the United States; President Barack Obama; the office of the President of the United States; Council on Environmental Quality director Christy Goldfuss; Office of Management and Budget director Shaun Donovan; Office of Science and Technology Policy director Dr. John Holdren; the Department of Energy and its secretary Dr. Ernest Moniz; the Interior Department and its secretary Sally Jewell; the Department of Transportation and its secretary Anthony Foxx; the Department of Agriculture and Thomas J. Vilsack; the Commerce Department and its secretary Penny Pritzker; the Department of Defense and its secretary Ashton Carter; the State Department and Secretary of State John Kerry; and the Environmental Protection Agency and administrator Gina McCarthy in Federal Court, claiming Constitutional violations and violations of the public trust doctrine.

The plaintiffs are represented by Julia Olson with Wild Earth Advocates in Eugene, Ore.

Olson underscored the gravity of the case.

"This is a landmark case being filed to save the climate system for these kids and for future generations, and it's on par with cases like Brown v. Board of Education and Obergefell v. Hodges in that it seeks to uphold the plaintiff young people's Constitutional rights to life, liberty and property," Olson said in a phone interview.

The kids say the government has known for over 50 years that "continuing to burn fossil fuels would destabilize the climate system on which present and future generations of our nation depend for their well-being and survival."

"Defendants also knew the harmful impacts of their actions would significantly endanger plaintiffs, with the damage persisting for millennia," the children continue. "Despite this knowledge, defendants continued their policies and practices of allowing the exploitation of fossil fuels."

Specifically, the plaintiffs point to the government's June approval of the planned Jordan Cove liquefied natural gas terminal in Coos Bay, Oregon. The terminal would become the single largest generator of carbon dioxide emissions in Oregon, the kids claim.

The terminal "will significantly increase the harm that defendants' actions are causing to plaintiffs. Defendants have long-standing knowledge of the cumulative danger that their aggregate actions are causing plaintiffs. The Jordan Cove project enhances the cumulative danger caused by defendants' affirmative aggregate actions," the kids say.

They add that this is not news, since the government has known it needed to protect the environment for future generations for at least 50 years.

"In a 1965 White House Report on 'Restoring the Quality of Our Environment,' for example, the President's Science Advisory Committee stated: 'The land, water, air and living things of the United States are a heritage of the whole nation. They need to be protected for the benefit of all Americans, both now and in the future. The continued strength and welfare of our nation depend on the quantity and quality of our resources and on the quality of the environment in which our people live,'" according to the complaint.


In 1990 and 1991, the government issued plans to stabilize the climate by reducing carbon emissions and stopping global warming. But neither the 1990 "Policy Options for Stabilizing Global Climate" nor 1991's "Changing by Degrees: Steps to Reduce Greenhouse Gasses" were ever implemented, according to the complaint.

The government has known since it drafted those plans that the atmosphere must be stabilized at or below 350 parts per million, according to the complaint.

"Twenty-five years later, today's best science confirms that 350 ppm is the maximum safe level of atmospheric CO2 required to restore a stable climate system," the lawsuit states.

But the government has refused to act, the kids say.

"Instead, defendants have willfully ignored this impending harm and exerted sovereign authority over our country's atmosphere and fossil fuel resources to increase the production and combustion of fossil fuels, by and through their aggregate actions and omissions, deliberately allowing CO2 emissions to escalate to levels unprecedented in human history, resulting in a dangerous destabilizing climate system for our country and these plaintiffs," the 96-page lawsuit states.

The concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere exceeded 400 ppm in March 2014.

Dr. Hansen and 16 other top scientists published a study in July that concluded that the glaciers in Antarctica and Greenland will melt 10 times faster than previously predicted because of a feedback loop near Antarctica that displaces cooler, saltier water under the ice sheets with warmer water, speeding melting.

Hansen predicted that the feedback loop could mean that ocean levels will rise by at least 10 feet in the next 50 years, threatening the earth's coastal cities - home to half of all humans.

"We conclude that continued high emissions will make multi-meter sea level rise practically unavoidable and likely to occur this century," the study's authors wrote. "Social disruption and economic consequences of such large sea level rise could be devastating. It is not difficult to imagine that conflicts arising from forced migrations and economic collapse might make the planet ungovernable, threatening the fabric of civilization."

The U.S. government should shoulder most of the blame for the situation, the kids say in their complaint.

"Through its policies and practices, the federal government is more responsible than any other individual, entity, or country for exposing plaintiffs to the present dangerous atmospheric CO2 concentration," the complaint says. "In fact, the United States is responsible for 25.5 percent of global historic cumulative CO2 emissions."

The government's refusal to protect the global climate is tantamount to discrimination against the young plaintiffs "who will disproportionately experience the destabilized climate system in our country," according to the complaint.

Importing and exporting natural gas is a dangerous game that violates the plaintiffs' rights to due process and equal protection, the lawsuit states.

"This court is plaintiffs' last resort to ensure their reasonable safety, and that of our posterity, from the harm perpetrated by defendants," the kids say in their complaint. "There is an extremely limited amount of time to preserve a habitable climate system for our country; otherwise, the warming of our nation will become locked in or rendered increasingly severe. Recent scientific studies conclude that our country is now in a period of 'carbon overshoot,' with early consequences that are already threatening and that will, in the short term, rise to unbearable unless defendants take immediate action to rapidly abate fossil fuel emissions and restore energy balance at a lower atmospheric CO2 concentration."

The government's approval of the Jordan Cove terminal is one example of the "policies, plans and practices" that "press our climate system further toward irretrievable impacts," the kids say.

The kids want the court to order the government to "swiftly phase down" carbon dioxide emissions and bring the atmospheric concentration of CO2 down to 350 ppm by the year 2100. They also want a court order directing the government to develop and implement a national plan to "restore Earth's energy balance" and "stabilize the climate system."

"Plaintiffs come before this court to secure their fundamental rights under the Constitution, before it is too late," the lawsuit states.

Representatives for the Jordan Cove terminal did not respond to requests for comment.

The Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency did not return Courthouse News' phone calls.

Plaintiffs timed the filing of their lawsuit to coincide with International Youth Day, according to a statement.

Plaintiff Tia Hatton, 18, of Bend, Ore., just graduated from high school and will start college at University of Oregon in the fall.

Hatton said she took part in the lawsuit because she believes it's her responsibility to force the government to act.

"I know we have the Clean Energy Act now, but it's already not enough - it's already inadequate," Hatton told Courthouse News. "It really makes me think that the people controlling the government aren't keeping our best interests and the best interests of future generations in mind."

Hatton said she sees the issue as part of a generational battle.

"I don't even have kids yet, but I see the younger kids who are plaintiffs and they're already seeing impacts of climate change. It's hard to think that we have to fight against people who aren't even going to be alive when we're feeling the worst effects of it. We're the ones who are going to be dealing with it, and they're stopping us from fixing it."

Even so, Hatton said she's optimistic about the future.

"I know that we do have the resources where we could reverse the damage," Hatton said. "But it's also a worldwide issue. This would be the first step and we'd need to help other countries adopt similar plans. But we can do our part first."

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