* The following is an opinion column by R Muse *
Americans love sensational legal battles, and yet most likely they missed what is being hailed as the “most significant legal decision” in our nation’s history in “the most important lawsuit on the planet right now.” A growing number of Americans are alarmed, and frustrated, that the fossil fuel devoted Republicans nationwide are winning a religious crusade to perpetuate the damage of anthropogenic climate change that President Obama seems to be fighting alone.
As it turns out, a group of 21 young people from across the nation have joined the climate change war in the savviest way possible and they just won a significantly historic and constitutional climate change court battle. And they prevailed against the fossil fuel industry and the federal government.
The 21 “young” plaintiffs were very dedicated, and clever, in suing the federal government for violating their constitutional “rights to life, liberty and property,” as well as their right to “essential public trust resources.” The 8-19 year old plaintiff’s asserted that by “permitting, encouraging and otherwise enabling continued exploitation, production and combustion of fossil fuels, the federal government infringed on their constitutional rights;” a federal District Court Magistrate Judge in Oregon agreed.
For a moment, it appeared the children were out-gunned because giants in the fossil fuel industry joined the government in seeking to dismiss the youth’s climate change lawsuit. The government and fossil fuel’s motions to dismiss specifically “denied any duty” under the United States Constitution, or the “public trust doctrine,” to protect essential natural resources like the air, land, waterways and oceans for the benefit of all present and future generations. The Judge in the case disagreed…vehemently.
The Judge, Thomas Coffin of the Federal District Court in Eugene, ruled that the 21 8-19 year old plaintiffs could continue their “landmark constitutional climate change case.” Despite the federal government’s battle being enjoined by powerful fossil fuel to get the young people’s case dismissed, Judge Coffin said the case is going forward specifically because,
“The government has known for decades that carbon dioxide (C02) pollution has been causing catastrophic climate change and has failed to take necessary action to curtail fossil fuel emissions resulting in carbon pollution of the atmosphere, climate destabilization and ocean acidification.”
The ruling also upholds the young plaintiffs’ claims that by not doing everything in its considerable power to combat global climate change, the federal government violated their Fifth and Ninth Amendment protections. As Judge Coffin said, “by denying them protections afforded to previous generations, and by favoring short term economic interests of certain citizens.”
The Judge specifically noted, and agreed with the youngsters, that both ignoring climate change and enabling it was also a violation of the “public trust doctrine.” It means that the government must adhere to the “principle that certain natural and cultural resources are preserved for public use, and that the government owns and must protect and maintain these resources for the public’s use. Thus, any use or sale of such land must be in the public interest.” Exacerbating anthropogenic climate change and all of its devastating effects is certainly not in “the public interest.”
It was a major win for the young people and all Americans, and a defeat for fossil fuel’s opinion that “the public trust” is an abomination. That opinion informs why Republicans in the employ of the fossil fuel industry oppose the government either owning or regulating, protecting or preserving land and water.
The attorney for the 8-19 year-old plaintiffs, Philip Gregory, said
“The court upheld our claims that the federal government intensified the danger to our plaintiffs’ lives, liberty and property. Judge Coffin decided our complaint will move forward and put climate science squarely in front of the federal courts. The next step is for the court to order our government to cease jeopardizing the climate system for present and future generations.”
As Judge Coffin noted in delivering what is an historic decision,
“This is an unprecedented lawsuit addressing government action and inaction. Plaintiffs give this debate justiciability by asserting harms that befall or will befall them personally and to a greater extent than older segments of society. It may be that eventually the alleged harms will befall all of us. But 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. This is especially true when such harms have an alleged disparate impact on a discrete class of society.”
The significance of the Judge’s ruling was not lost on one of the young plaintiffs, Kelsey Juliana who said,
“This decision marks a tipping point on the scales of justice. Youth voices are uniting around the world to demand that government uphold our constitutional rights and protect the planet for our and future generations’ survivability. This will be the trial of the century that will determine if we have a right to a livable future, or if corporate power will continue to deny our rights for the sake of their own wealth.”
It is stunning, really, that such an elegantly simple argument about 21 youth’s Constitutional “rights to life, liberty, and property” may indeed be the tipping point that forces the Republicans in government to combat climate change, even if it is by judicial decree. This case comes at a particularly prescient time as Republicans in state legislatures and Congress are expanding their vicious assault on the government’s right to even own land, much less protect, maintain and preserve it. Conservatives claim all public belongs in the hands of logging, mining and oil industry interests. But based on Judge Coffin’s historic ruling, that claim contradicts the public trust doctrine, the Fifth and Ninth Amendments, and the Constitutional “rights to life, liberty and property.”