On January 17, a panel of three judges in the United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 to dismiss a landmark climate change lawsuit brought by 21 young people against the federal government.
The case, Juliana vs. United States, was first filed in 2015 by the young plaintiffs with the assistance of the group Our Children’s Trust. They claim that by allowing greenhouse gas emissions to continue despite scientific evidence that doing so would damage the environment, the federal government has violated the plaintiffs’ fundamental rights.
The case has been watched closely since it was first allowed to proceed to the federal level in 2016. Both the Obama and Trump administrations have opposed the lawsuit, arguing that the issues lay outside of the purview of the courts. In 2018, the Supreme Court even made an unexpected intervention and paused the case. The three federal judges heard arguments in June 2019 and reached their decision on Friday.
According to the majority’s 32-page opinion, written by Judge Andrew D. Hurwitz, the plaintiffs “have made a compelling case that action is needed,” conceding that “the federal government has long promoted fossil fuel use despite knowing that it can cause catastrophic climate change.” But he continued, noting that: “Reluctantly, we conclude that such relief is beyond our constitutional power. Rather, the plaintiffs’ impressive case for redress must be presented to the political branches of government.”
The plaintiffs are now ages 12 to 23, and have been fighting their case during the five hottest years on record, the New York Times’ John Schwartz notes. In June, only two-thirds of them were old enough to vote.
In her dissent, Judge Josephine L. Staton wrote that “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.”
Both Hurwitz and Staton, as well as the third judge Mary H. Murguia, were appointed to their positions by President Barack Obama.
The case has been a landmark for climate change because it brought the fight directly to the federal government. UCLA climate change law expert Ann Carlson told the New York Times that she was surprised the case got as far as it did and pointed to the lack of political will as the greatest barrier to action on climate change.
“If ever there were a case where your heart says yes but your mind says no,” former head of the Justice Department’s environmental crimes section David M. Uhlmann told the Times, “Juliana unfortunately is that case.”
At this point, other groups fighting for action on climate change have taken to the courts. Our Children’s Trust has filed similar climate change suits in state courts, and in Louisiana, four indigenous tribes have filed a human rights claim at the United Nations, per Umair Irfan at Vox.
The plaintiffs in Juliana vs. the United States don’t intend to stop here, either. Although the case was dismissed, Philip Gregory, co-counsel to the 21 plaintiffs with lead lawyer Julia Olson, told NPR’s Nathan Rott that they intend to file an "en banc petition," which would have the case reviewed by 11 randomly selected judges in the Ninth Circuit.