A lawsuit brought by children against the Obama administration may force President-elect Donald Trump to decide how far he’ll go to downplay the threat of global warming.
Youths from across the U.S. won a chance Thursday to pursue claims that the Obama administration didn’t do enough to protect the environment from climate change when an Oregon federal judge rejected the government’s request to dismiss their lawsuit.
Environmentalists said the ruling is especially poignant because Trump, a real estate developer and former reality television star, has called climate change a hoax.
“We have a president-elect who is an obvious climate denier and both political branches controlled by a party rampant with climate denialism," said Julia Olson, a plaintiffs attorney in the case. “It makes the job of the court that much more important in our constitutional democracy."
The 21 children and teenagers who filed the case claim that by perpetuating the use of fossil fuels, the U.S. government has trampled on their constitutional rights to life, liberty and property. Olson said she’s called on the Obama administration to negotiate a settlement with a binding court order to “protect the future of the children” before Trump is inaugurated on Jan. 20.
The youths contend the government has “known for decades" that carbon dioxide pollution produced by fuel consumption has caused global warming. By continuing to burn coal and natural gas at an increasing rate, the government has consciously destabilized the climate system, according to the complaint.
“If the government continues to delay urgent annual emissions reductions, my generation’s well-being will be inexcusably put at risk," the lead plaintiff, Kelsey Juliana, 20, said in the complaint.
Industry advocacy groups including the National Association of Manufacturers and the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers have sought to enter the case in the government’s defense.
U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken in Eugene, Oregon, said in Thursday’s ruling that the case is “not about proving that climate change is happening or that human activity is driving it.”
Instead, the judge said, the questions before her were whether the children have standing to challenge the government’s policy and whether a court can order the U.S. to change course without running afoul of the Constitution.
‘Actions and inactions’
“This action is of a different order than the typical environmental case,” she wrote. “It alleges that defendants’ actions and inactions — whether or not they violate any specific statutory duty — have so profoundly damaged our home planet that they threaten plaintiffs’ fundamental constitutional rights to life and liberty.”
The Obama administration in April brokered a global carbon emissions reduction deal in Paris with more than 180 nations. Last year, Obama launched a domestic Clean Power Plan that calls for less coal consumption and more use of renewable energy. A challenge to that plan by 27 states and more than a dozen industry groups is before a federal appeals court.
Trump tweeted in 2012 that “the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”
The Republican distanced himself from that comment during his campaign for president, while vowing to “cancel” the Paris agreement. While he can’t rip up the entire accord, the president-elect has several options for pulling the U.S. out.
The case is Juliana v. U.S.A., 15-cv-01517, U.S. District Court, District of Oregon (Eugene).