Less than a week ago, US District Judge Ann Aiken ruled in favor of 21 youth plaintiffs seeking to sue the US government over climate change. The plaintiffs, whose ages range from 9 to 20, charged the government and the fossil fuel industry with violating their constitutional rights by failing to address the issue. More specifically, they accused the government and private sector of endangering their rights to life, liberty, property, and vital public trust resources. Renowned climate scientist Dr. James E Hansen is also acting as plaintiff in the case. The lawsuit is one of several state and federal actions led by Our Children’s Trust, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the country’s youth and environmental issues. The favorable ruling, which grants the plaintiffs the right to sue the case’s defendants, comes one year after the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM), the American Petroleum Institute (API), and the US federal government motioned for the case to be thrown out before US Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin. Coffin rejected the motion, saying it was based on a “lack of subject matter jurisdiction and failure to state a claim.” The defendants appealed, passing the case along to Judge Aikin following Coffin’s retirement.
Judge Aikin, in her ruling, called out the US legal system for being overly cautious and “overly deferential in the arena of environmental law,” adding that “the world has suffered for it.” She also commented on the unique nature of the case as “It alleges that defendants’ actions and inactions—whether or not they violate any specific statutory duty—have so profoundly damaged our home planet that they threaten plaintiffs’ fundamental constitutional rights to life and liberty.” The case is indeed unique, not just due to the nature of the case itself, but also for the precedent it sets. Though a similar precedent was set in the Netherlands last year, this particular case marks the first time a court decided that a national government should have “independent legal obligations toward their citizens,” according to the plaintiffs’ lawyer.
This case could also be the “Pandora’s box” of environmental lawsuits against the government and private sector. With this case moving forward, what is stop considering citizens from suing the fossil fuel industry or the federal government over other practices that degrade the environment and public resources such as fracking? Fracking permanently destroys watersheds, aquifers, and rivers in the areas where wells are drilled and has endangered, and in some cases destroyed, the only source of safe drinking water for entire populations. If the government and private sector can now be sued for violating the rights of life, liberty, and property and for endangering public resources, we can expect to see more lawsuits appear that hold the mega-corporations and the government that supports them accountable. It will be a welcome change.