Climate Gets Its Day in Court

3 minute read

If you’re like most Americans, the name Kelsey Juliana might not mean a lot to you. But if you’re an attorney or other official with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of the Interior, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Justice, the Department of Defense, the Council on Environmental Quality, or a host of other federal departments and agencies, Juliana is a very big name—and a very big headache.

A 27-year-old environmental activist living in Eugene, Ore., Juliana is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit initially filed in 2015, on behalf of 21 teenagers and young adults, charging that the government’s poor environmental laws are depriving the complainants—along with more than 70 million other young Americans—of life, liberty, and property. The suit does not seek monetary damages, but rather remedial measures such as a reduction in fossil-fuel extraction and stricter caps on factory and vehicle-tailpipe emissions. The plaintiffs list the various departments named as defendants and the role they expect them to play in the clean-up—with, say, the Department of Commerce more tightly regulating logging and other planet-warming activities on public lands and the Department of Energy abandoning plans to build a liquefied natural gas plant in Coos Bay, Ore.

On Dec. 29, the plaintiffs scored a win on the way to achieving those goals, when the U.S. District Court in Oregon agreed to take up the case.

It’s been a long time coming. Juliana vs. United States has been winding its way through the court system for nine years—slowed down at one point by fossil-fuel lobbying groups intervening as co-defendants with the U.S. government, and trying to get the case thrown out. Along the way, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals accepted the plaintiffs’ argument that they had standing to sue on the basis that today’s children will be left to clean up the mess created by today’s adults. But in 2020, the court threw out the case for an entirely different reason, concluding that the remedies it sought—including a ruling that the government “prepare and implement an enforceable national remedial plan to phase out fossil fuel emissions”—were too broad and best handled by the executive and legislative branches.

The next year, the plaintiffs sought and won a change of venue to the U.S. District Court in Oregon, where Judge Ann Aiken ordered both sides to begin settlement talks. Those negotiations collapsed, but Aiken did give the Juliana lawyers the opportunity to narrow the scope of their complaint, stripping it of some of its more specific provisions, like emissions caps, which Aiken agreed required legislation. Those efforts by the Juliana team paid off last week when Aiken ruled that her court would now hear the case.

That big win could spell more such suits both in the U.S. and elsewhere. Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law lists no fewer than 1,800 climate cases being drafted by American activist groups and another 970 overseas. Not all of them will prevail—most may not even be accepted for trial. But the power of the courts is clearly becoming one more arrow in the environmentalists’ quiver.

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