Photo by Sam Howzlt via flickr
The federal government recently threw out a lawsuit brought against it by a small group of American youth who are concerned for the health of the planet and the consequent survival of their generation. Specifically, this lawsuit demands that the federal government act quickly to reduce the nation’s carbon emissions by six percent every year, starting in 2013. On June 1, the District Court for the District of Columbia issued a decision granting motions to dismiss the case.
Based in public trust doctrine and commons law, this suit sought to identify the atmosphere as part of the public trust. The plaintiffs claimed that the United States government failed to protect future generations from the potential dangers of climate change and that it should be held accountable for that failure. They demanded that it be responsible for reducing the nation’s carbon emissions by six percent per year, beginning in 2012. The figure of six percent is not random. It is the common understanding of leading scientists that reducing emissions by six percent each year will bring the amount of carbon in the atmosphere down to 350 parts per million by 2100. The young people teamed up with attorney Julia Olson, founder of Our Children’s Trust, who understands the power of the public trust doctrine and has been studying its potential for years. This historical doctrine is a legal principle that maintains the government is responsible for preserving certain natural resources for the public good. And while the doctrine has protected waterways and wildlife, there is no precedent for invoking it to protect the air we breathe.
The list of defendants was substantial and included the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Interior, Department of Agriculture, Department of Commerce, Department of Energy, and the Department of Defense. However, when the suit was filed, something strange and very significant happened; it was clear that the plaintiffs struck a chord. According to David Swanson, several companies and organizations fought to be added to the list of defendants. These include Delta Construction Company Inc., Dalton Trucking Inc., Southern California Contractors Association Inc., California Dump Truck Owners Association, Engineering & Utility Contactors Association, and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM).
Swanson goes on to cover more of the details of the initial hearing held on May 11, 2012: “In Friday’s hearing, however, other arguments were advanced. Three men spoke for the defense, one from the government, one from NAM, and one from the California interveners. They did not dispute the reality and seriousness of global warming, which James Hansen called “apocalyptic” in Thursday’s New York Times. They did not claim ownership of the sky. Instead they argued for democracy, the Constitution, the separation of powers, the right of the legislative branch to legislate, and the existence of the EPA as sufficient to answer the plaintiff’s claims whether or not the EPA was doing any good.” It appears as though the defendants forgot about the next generation’s right to life, liberty, and happiness, all of which are impossible to achieve on a planet characterized by violent storms, rising seas, and polluted air.
After the decision to dismiss the case was made on June 1, lead plaintiff and climate activist Alec Loorz said, “The court wants us to find or even ‘seize’ common ground with the fossil fuel industry and government. But I believe that as long as these institutions value profits and power over the survival of my generation, there can be no common ground. The government may say that we need to do something about the climate crisis, but when… they continue to do nothing, the courts have to step in to protect us. That didn’t happen today, but we will not give up. Our futures are at stake. We will continue fighting to protect our planet for our generation . . . and all who follow, for as long as it takes.”
Plaintiffs’ attorney Julia Olson also had this to say: “We are obviously disappointed. Let me first say we are so proud of the youth of our nation for standing up and pursuing the only remedy that allows them a future life and planet they have a right to inherit. Regarding the decision, we believe the Court is wrong and his decision is not legally correct. However, we agree with Judge Wilkins that ‘this case is about the fundamental nature of our government and our constitutional system.’ That system mandates protection of our fundamental right to a healthy atmosphere, on which humanity depends. We continue to believe we are legally correct and we will be continuing our efforts on behalf of our nation’s youth.”
We are left with the question of how to make progress for the powerless when the government clearly works for the most powerful. We expect civic engagement from our youth, but they are faced with resistance and dismissal when they advocate for themselves. They are patronized and ignored. Ultimately, though, this particular group of young people learned a very difficult lessons in American “democracy” – the judges and politicians in power value money and industry over the survival of future generations. But youth is resilient. They will be the front line of this environmental revolution, and we will have a lot to learn from their bravery and perseverance.