Youth activists lose appeal in landmark lawsuit against US over climate crisis

Lee Van der Voo in Oregon
Photograph: Win McNamee/Getty Images

The ninth circuit court of appeals ordered dismissal of a lawsuit brought by 21 youth plaintiffs against the federal government over climate crisis, citing concerns about separation of powers.

The case was brought against the government in 2015, charging that it sanctioned, permitted and authorized a fossil fuel system that compromised the youth plaintiffs’ civil right to property. It implied a constitutional right to a stable climate, and alleged that the government violated the public trust by failing to protect assets held in trust, notably the atmosphere.

The plaintiffs, now all between the ages of 12 and 23, also asked the US district court of Oregon to order the government to craft a climate remediation plan, one targeting scientifically acceptable standards to stabilize the climate.

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On Friday, the ninth circuit court found, however, that the court lacked the power to enforce such a plan or climate policy decisions by the government and Congress, concluding “in the end, any plan is only as good as the court’s power to enforce it”.

Nevertheless, the court found that the record “conclusively establishes that the federal government has long understood the risks of fossil fuel use and increasing carbon dioxide emissions” and “that the government’s contribution to climate change is not simply a result of inaction”.

The court also found that the youth met the requirements for standing in the case and that some of the plaintiffs met the requirements for actual injury.

Levi Draheim, a 12-year-old plaintiff from Satellite Beach, Florida, the court found was injured by repeat evacuations from his home during worsening storms. Jaime Butler, 19, was injured by displacement from her home because of water security issues, separating her from relatives in the Navajo Nation, the court also found. The court also found that the plaintiffs proved their injuries were caused by the climate crisis.

Two of the three judges balked at the scope of change required to reverse climate breakdown, finding that halting certain programs would not halt the growth of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere or injuries to the plaintiffs.

“Indeed, the plaintiffs’ experts make plain that reducing the global consequences of climate change demands much more than cessation of the government’s promotion of fossil fuels. Rather, these experts opine that such a result calls for no less than a fundamental transformation of this country’s energy system, if not that of the industrialized world … given the complexity and long-lasting nature of global climate change, the court would be required to supervise the government’s compliance with any suggested plan for many decades.”

Kelsey Juliana, the lead plaintiff in Juliana v United States speaks at the supreme court in Washington DC. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Kelsey Juliana, the 23-year-old named plaintiff in Juliana v United States and a resident of Eugene, Oregon, said she was “disappointed that these judges would find that federal courts can’t protect America’s youth, even when a constitutional right has been violated”.

“Such a holding is contrary to American principles of justice that I have been taught since elementary school,” Juliana added. “This decision gives full, unfettered authority to the legislative and executive branches of government to destroy our country, because we are dealing with a crisis that puts the very existence of our nation in peril.”

“We will continue this case because only the courts can help us,” Draheim told the Guardian following the ruling. “We brought this lawsuit to secure our liberties and protect our lives and our homes. Much like the civil rights cases, we firmly believe the courts can vindicate our constitutional rights and we will not stop until we get a decision that says so.”

District Judge Josephine L Staton, in a lengthy dissenting opinion, argued that courts do have the authority to protect the young in the face of climate breakdown, and should, given the government’s inaction: “In these proceedings, the government accepts as fact that the United States has reached a tipping point crying out for a concerted response – yet presses ahead toward calamity. It is as if an asteroid were barreling toward Earth and the government decided to shut down our only defenses. Seeking to quash this suit, the government bluntly insists that it has the absolute and unreviewable power to destroy the nation.”

The court ordered the case be remanded to the district court and dismissed.