Court hears appeal in Canadian youth climate lawsuit

The case requests a court order declaring the government’s conduct as unconstitutional and mandating the government implement a science-based climate recovery plan to reduce Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions according to its fair share.

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Image Credit: Michael Wheatley/Alamy

Young Canadians suing the federal government over its role in worsening the climate crisis are hoping that an appeals court will give them a chance to be heard at trial, after a judge dismissed their case over two years ago. The case was back in court this week as lawyers for the youths argued that the Federal Court of Appeal should overturn that judge’s ruling and permit the case to move towards trial. 

“This case is ripe for trial because we are in a climate emergency,” Chris Tollefson, one of the attorneys representing the 15 youth plaintiffs in La Rose v. His Majesty the King, said during the two-day hearing on February 14 and 15, held virtually over Zoom. A three-judge panel from the appeals court in Ottawa presided over the hearing, and will determine the fate of the case at this stage. 

Initially filed in October 2019, the La Rose case — the Canadian equivalent of the landmark U.S. youth climate lawsuit Juliana v. United States — seeks to hold the Canadian government accountable for contributing to dangerous climate change. It alleges the government’s actions, such as continuing to promote fossil fuel development, are disproportionately harming Canada’s youth and violating young people’s fundamental rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. 

The case requests a court order declaring the government’s conduct as unconstitutional and mandating the government implement a science-based climate recovery plan to reduce Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions according to its fair share. Justice Michael Manson of Canada’s Federal Court tossed the case in October 2020, finding it to be too political in nature and not suitable for the courts. 

Lawyers for the youths appealed Manson’s ruling and argued in this week’s hearing that the case is appropriate for the judicial system to weigh in. Even though climate change is complex and global in scope, courts are capable of grappling with it, they contended, pointing to climate court cases in other countries — most notably the Netherlands — where citizens have successfully challenged government responses to the climate crisis. Reidar Mogerman, an attorney for the youth plaintiffs, argued that courts “can’t be on the sidelines” on an issue as existential and consequential as climate change. 

“If we don’t win and the court is not on the stage, that’s a big problem for society,” Mogerman said during a post-hearing press conference organized by Our Children’s Trust, a nonprofit supporting youth-led climate litigation. 

“The [Canadian] government said the court should use caution and take an incremental approach, even when the people of Canada are facing an existential crisis,” Andrea Rodgers, senior litigation attorney at Our Children’s Trust, said. “This is a government that is the tenth highest greenhouse gas emitter in the world.” 

As Rodgers noted, Canada has consistently failed to meet its own emissions reduction targets set for itself since 1998. “Elected leaders say climate change is an emergency and one day later authorize a pipeline to transport 600,000 barrels of oil from Alberta to British Columbia,” she said. The Canadian government has continued to promote fossil fuel expansion in recent years, from its decision in 2018 to purchase the TransMountain crude oil pipeline after the developer pulled out of the project, to its approval last year of an oil and gas megaproject off of the country’s eastern shore.   

Climate protesters hold up signs and march for climate action in Vancouver, Canada
Global climate strike in Vancouver, Canada, in 2019. Credit: Carlos Santos, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Young people bringing the lawsuit explained that while their government claims to be taking the climate threat seriously, it has proceeded with little meaningful action to rein in emissions. They are therefore left with few options and court involvement becomes necessary, they argue.

“It’s a lot of talk, but where is the action?” 20-year-old plaintiff Raine Robinson said. “If [the government] really thought climate change was this big issue they wouldn’t be arguing against this case,” Robinson said, adding that the youth are “at the point where we’ve exhausted all of our options.” 

“We are pursuing the legal basis because we have tried everything else,” explained youth plaintiff Lauren Wright. 

Reflecting on the government’s arguments that climate change is too massive and complex to be handled by courts, plaintiff Albert Lalonde responded: “If it’s too big and too political and too complicated, then where does that leave us?”

Mogerman, attorney for the youths, said that this question of Lalonde’s was raised during this week’s hearing. “The telling exchange was where one of the judges said to the federal government lawyer, ‘What would you say to one of these children who told you that you’ve admitted that climate change is real, you’ve admitted that it has the potential to destroy their future, they challenge what you’re doing, and you tell them they can’t go to court? Where do they go, what do they do?’ There was really not a real answer to that question.”

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