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Unprecedented Climate Change Case Proceeds in Court

A federal magistrate judge in Eugene, Oregon recently allowed an unprecedented climate change case to proceed in court.  Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein call it the “most important lawsuit on the planet right now.”

In Kelsey Cascade Rose Juliana; et al. v. the United States of America; et al., Docket No.6:15-cv-1517-TC (D. Or. Apr. 8, 2016), Plaintiffs are comprised of environmentally-conscious youth from across the country, environmental activists who assert they are beneficiaries of a federal public trust which is being harmed by climate change, and renowned climate scientist Dr. James Hansen as guardian for plaintiff “future generations.”

Plaintiffs are suing the United States and select government officials and agencies, alleging that, among other things, the government has known for decades that carbon dioxide (CO2) pollutes the atmosphere, destabilizes the climate, and acidifies the ocean, and that the government has failed to take necessary action to curb fossil fuel emissions.  Plaintiffs creatively claim that defendants violated their equal protection rights embedded in the Fifth Amendment by denying them protections afforded to previous generations and by arbitrarily favoring short term economic interests; defendants’ acts and omissions violate their implicit rights in the Ninth Amendment to a stable climate and an ocean and atmosphere devoid of dangerous levels of CO2; defendants violated a public trust doctrine, secured by the Ninth Amendment, by denying future generations key natural resources.  Plaintiffs seek an order requiring the government to implement a plan that would reduce U.S. CO2 concentrations to a maximum of 350 parts per million by 2100.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Tom Coffin described Plaintiffs’ lawsuit as “relatively unprecedented,” because Plaintiffs assert “a novel theory somewhere between a civil rights action and NEPA/Clean Air Act/Clean Water Act suit to force the government to take action to reduce harmful pollution.”

The government and intervening trade groups, which represent many of the world’s largest energy companies, moved to dismiss, asserting that Plaintiffs lack standing to bring this suit, raise non-justiciable political questions, fail to state a constitutional claim, and allege a violation of the public trust doctrine which does not provide a cognizable federal cause of action.

The Court denied the motions to dismiss, determining that it would be premature to throw out the case and that the record should be further developed.

Judge Coffin noted that “the intractability of the debates before Congress and state legislatures and the alleged valuing of short term economic interest despite the cost to human life, necessitates a need for the courts to evaluate the constitutional parameters of the action or inaction taken by the government.”

The Court’s order will now be reviewed by District Judge Ann ­Aiken, who will consider any objections before deciding whether to uphold or modify this recent ruling.

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