Can a children's lawsuit force action on climate change?

FEBRUARY 11, 2017 —On Friday, President Trump was named the lead defendant in a lawsuit brought by 21 US students – one as young as nine – against the US government. 

The case, Juliana v. United States, was first filed in 2015 with President Barack Obama listed as lead defendant, so the switch to Mr. Trump is largely procedural.

But the plaintiffs are seeking a court order that will compel the US government to phase out fossil fuels. With the change from Mr. Obama to Trump, they’re now taking on an administration that looks askance at climate science.

This marks the latest shift in a years-long legal campaign that aims to move beyond political inaction on climate change by establishing a Constitutional right to a stable climate.

"The US is most responsible for climate change, so it's really the most important case in the world right now on the issue," said Julia Olson, lead counsel for the plaintiffs.

The group sponsoring this lawsuit, Our Children’s Trust, has been attempting to litigate climate-change action since 2011, when young plaintiffs affiliated with the group filed lawsuits or regulatory petitions in all 50 states.

While these cases differed in their specifics, they all sought to apply the public trust doctrine – the concept that the government owns and must maintain natural resources for the public’s use – to the atmosphere, and, by extension, compel state governments to implement policies that would phase out fossil fuels and thus drastically reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

The group has had some success. In September 2016, after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court sided with the group, Gov. Charles Baker issued an executive order directing the state government to establish emissions-reductions regulations by August 2017, and prepare a "comprehensive energy plan" within two years.  

But elsewhere, judges saw greenhouse-gas reductions as a matter for the legislatures, not the courts.

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