US government urges court to dismiss federal youth climate lawsuit

The DOJ under the Biden administration appears to be resuming the fight against the 21 youth plaintiffs who are seeking to force the U.S. government to face trial and answer to their evidence of climate science.

Image Credit: Dana Drugmand/DeSmogBlog

The U.S. Department of Justice is asking a federal district court in Oregon to put an end to the landmark constitutional youth climate lawsuit Juliana v. United States after the court reactivated the litigation earlier this month.

The case, which was originally filed in 2015 and alleges constitutional violations stemming from the federal government’s ongoing support of climate-destabilizing fossil fuels, had nearly made it to trial twice before. But after the Obama administration failed in the government’s initial bid to get the case dismissed, unprecedented legal tactics deployed by the Trump administration derailed the proceedings and a federal appeals court eventually dismissed the case in January 2020

On June 1, Judge Ann Aiken of the U.S. District Court in Oregon issued a long-awaited ruling allowing the case to proceed under a revised version of the complaint. In it the plaintiffs are seeking a court declaration of constitutional violations, rather than a declaration and an order for the government to develop what the plaintiffs’ lawyers call a climate recovery plan.

However, the DOJ under the Biden administration appears to be resuming the fight against the 21 youth plaintiffs who are seeking to force the U.S. government to face trial and answer to their evidence of climate science. Government lawyers filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit on June 22. They claim the revised complaint is virtually the same as the original and the appellate court’s order dismissing the case requires the district court to execute that order and end the lawsuit. 

Attorneys representing young people in climate lawsuits against governments say that bringing climate science into courts is critical to protecting the youngest generations, who will disproportionately experience increasing climate damages but are unable to influence the political branches’ response to the climate crisis.

“Children can’t affect the politics. So they have to rely on the facts and the evidence in a court, because politicians will ignore them,” attorney Phil Gregory told DeSmog. “But given what’s happening to the climate, we can’t ignore the effect on children. That’s why we need to get before the third branch of government that takes the evidence and applies it to the constitution.”

The federal Juliana climate case contends that the U.S. government has long perpetuated a fossil fuel–dependent energy system despite clear knowledge of the climate consequences, thereby contributing to dangerous climate change and violating young people’s fundamental constitutional rights. In a November 2016 order rejecting the government’s initial attempt to dismiss the case, Judge Aiken stated: “I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society.”

In its latest request to terminate the lawsuit, the DOJ argues that no such constitutional right exists. According to government lawyers, “interests in the climate are unlike the particularized personal liberty or personal privacy interests of individuals the Supreme Court has previously recognized as being protected by fundamental rights.” DOJ also argues that the 21 youth plaintiffs are not uniquely endangered by climate change, that “general degradation of the global climate” does not result in “immediate, direct, physical, and personal harms” like physical assault or rape, and that a court declaration finding government conduct to be unconstitutional would fail to remedy plaintiffs’ alleged injuries as it would not in itself repair the destabilized climate system.

In her June 1 order, Judge Aiken stated to the contrary that “a declaration that federal defendants’ energy policies violate plaintiffs’ constitutional rights would itself be significant relief.” In its 2020 decision to dismiss the case, a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals panel had determined courts could not order the government to undertake decarbonization measures aligned with climate science, since that would involve complex policy matters. Aiken, however, reasoned that a court declaration pertaining to alleged constitutional violations is “squarely within” the authority of the judiciary to grant, thereby allowing the narrower revised complaint to proceed.

But with its filing of a motion to dismiss last week, the DOJ under President Biden is demanding the court refuse to hear the youth plaintiffs and the scientific evidence supporting their claims. The filing came just two days after the conclusion of trial in a similar youth climate case at the state level against the government of Montana. That trial was the first in U.S. history to see young people testifying to their lived experiences of climate impacts. This was backed by testimony from climate scientists and others explaining the science behind these impacts and the state government’s role in contributing to the harm through continued policies and practices promoting fossil fuels. In its brief defense, the state presented no climate science evidence in response.

Climate science, like this depiction of rising atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, was presented to support plaintiffs’ claims of government-authorized harms during the recent Montana youth climate trial. Credit: Dana Drugmand

“Sixteen young Montanans in Held v. State of Montana just demonstrated the power and importance of putting on evidence of their government’s continued promulgation of a fossil fuel energy system in open court while the world watched,” Julia Olson, chief legal counsel and executive director of Our Children’s Trust, a nonprofit law firm that has spearheaded U.S. youth climate lawsuits against governments, said in a statement.

According to Our Children’s Trust, the DOJ’s latest move to try to stop Juliana from reaching trial is a continuation of the relentless oppositional tactics used by government lawyers under the Trump administration.

“This decision, made at the highest levels of the Department of Justice, to seek to deny the 21 young plaintiffs in Juliana their day in court is shameful,” Olson said.

“It is appalling that the Biden administration, which claims to support young people’s right to a safe climate, would try to stop the 21 Juliana youth in the same manner that the Trump administration did, all while continuing to authorize new fossil fuel projects like the Willow Project,” Olson added, referring to ConocoPhillips’ proposed oil and gas drilling project in the Alaskan Arctic that the Biden administration authorized in March. Most recently, the administration allowed congressional proponents of the Mountain Valley gas pipeline to mandate fast-tracking the project as part of negotiations to raise the debt ceiling.

Continued approval of new fossil fuel development is inconsistent with limiting warming to well below 2° Celsius, climate scientists have warned. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Sixth Assessment Synthesis Report published in March said that projected emissions from existing fossil fuel infrastructure would result in warming exceeding the 1.5° Celsius limit established under the Paris Agreement.

“In the moment when every new UN IPCC Declaration is a clarion call, when every year racks up unprecedented global weather disasters, when Congress is seemingly determined to further drive the US and world past points of ‘no return,’ it is the responsibility of our court system to be the constitutional bulwark in halting ‘the nation’s willful destruction,’” said 23-year-old Juliana plaintiff Nathan Baring.


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