American Youth to bring US Federal Government to Trial in Ground-breaking Climate Change Lawsuit

16 November 2016: In 2015 youth between the ages of 8 and 19 filed a constitutional climate change case against the Federal Government of the United States of America at the United States District Court for the District of Oregon. In Juliana v United States of America the youth are challenging the Federal Government of the USA for failure to take action against the burning of fossil fuels, which destabilizes the climate system and puts its future at risk. The 21 plaintiffs claim that the Federal Government has for decades known of the effects of exploiting fossil fuels, but has continued to promote policies that encourage the extraction and utilisation of these energy sources.

They argue that under the ‘public trust doctrine’, while the Federal Government of the USA is the custodian of all natural resources, the citizens own the natural resources and they are now challenging the way the state has carried out its responsibilities under this doctrine. The youth spoke, and last week Judge Ann Aiken of the United States District Court for the District of Oregon rejected the motion to dismiss initiated by the Federal Government, describing this as ‘no ordinary lawsuit’.

The public trust doctrine has been championed in recent years as a useful tool to compel governments across the world to take action against climate change. Leading academics and civil society organisations like Our Children’s Trust have shaped the global conversation on climate change, working to secure the legal right to a stable and healthy environment. The potential for climate change litigation in securing respect for environmental rule of law is immense. In the words of Judge Alfred T. Goodwin,

“The current state of affairs ... reveals a wholesale failure of the legal system to protect humanity from the collapse of finite natural resources by the uncontrolled pursuit of short-term profits ....”

In on-going efforts to raise awareness of environmental issues affecting our society, UN Environment urges parliaments across the world to take due note of these issues when drafting eco-friendly laws. UN Environment also supports governments in implementing laws in ways that emphasize the central place the environment occupies in ensuring sustainable development. UN Environment works hand-in-hand with judges to back a wide interpretation of rights under constitutions across the world for a just outcome. The need to step up efforts in this is shown in Judge Aiken’s opinion that,

“Even when a case implicates hotly contested political issues, the judiciary must not shrink from its role as a coequal branch of government”

The responsibility to protect the environment cannot be realized through one organization, branch of government, country, or institution. For climate change litigation to make its mark in securing change in fossil fuel policy and law, global partnerships must be built, to strengthen the environmental rule of law.

For more information on this story please contact niamh.brannigan [at] unep.org