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The Climate Lawsuit Three Presidents Tried to Kill Is Finally Going to Court​

“The judiciary is capable and duty-bound to provide redress for the irreparable harm government fossil fuel promotion has caused.”

A child on courthouse steps.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

In the last days of 2023, Judge Ann Aiken of the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon ended an argument that had lasted eight years and three presidential administrations. Juliana v. United States, a groundbreaking climate case filed by a group of twenty one young plaintiffs in federal court, could finally go to trial.

“The judiciary is capable and duty-bound to provide redress for the irreparable harm government fossil fuel promotion has caused,” Aiken wrote in her opinion. “Some may balk at the Court’s approach as errant or unmeasured, but more likely than not, future generations may look back to this hour and say that the judiciary failed to measure up at all. In any case over which trial courts have jurisdiction, where the plaintiffs have stated a legal claim, it is the proper and peculiar province of the courts to impartially find facts, faithfully interpret and apply the law, and render reasoned judgment. Such is the case here.”

This might sound a bit familiar to regular readers of Heatmap; last year, I wrote about Held v. Montana, a case in Montana filed by youth plaintiffs who argued that the state government was violating their constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment by ignoring the environmental impacts of energy projects. The judge in that case, Kathy Seeley, ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor in August.

There are certainly some similarities between the cases: Both groups of plaintiffs, for example, are represented by Our Children’s Trust, a nonprofit law firm that’s filed youth climate cases around the country; and both cases hinged on the idea that a failure to mitigate climate change is a violation of plaintiffs’ rights. But Held is a state-level case, and its ramifications will only be felt in Montana. Juliana, on the other hand, is going through the federal court system, and could eventually end up in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.

At issue, in the simplest terms, is whether the U.S. government has a duty to protect the climate for public use, and whether its friendliness towards fossil fuels violates that duty. A win — however unlikely it may be — would give environmental advocates an incredibly powerful tool for future climate action: federal precedent.

The case has had a long journey. “This path to justice has been over eight long years in coming,” said Julia Olson, OTC’s founder and Chief Legal Council, in a statement. “Finally, in 2024, the Juliana plaintiffs will have their long-awaited trial and the federal government’s fossil fuel energy system will be measured and judged by the fundamental constitutional rights of these youth. Our democracy will be stronger for it.”

Not that the government is going to go down easy. “Each administration has had its own defense strategy,” James May, founder of the Global Environmental Rights Institute at Widener University Delaware Law School, told me. The case has bounced around between courts in part because of an idea known as “redressability,” May told me — in essence, whether or not the judiciary can provide redress to the plaintiffs.

The Obama administration tried to have the case dismissed on standing, saying that climate change was a matter to be addressed by the political branches of government. After that failed, the Trump Justice Department tried accusing lower courts of overreach in considering the case at all, an argument that also failed to move judges. The plaintiffs amended their complaint in 2021, by which point the case was in front of Biden’s DOJ. The Biden administration revisited Obama-era tactics, refashioning them to claim that the judiciary was not able to provide the plaintiffs with a remedy.

Aiken remained unmoved. “That unnecessarily narrow view overlooks one clear and constitutional path to shielding future generations from impacts of the onslaught of environmental disaster: that it is the responsibility of the judiciary to declare the law that the government may not deprive the People of their Constitutional guarantee of the God-given right to life,” she wrote.

May, for his part, agrees with Aiken — the court doesn’t have to figure out a fix for climate change, he said; all it has to do is decide if there’s been a constitutional violation, which would be a form of redress itself.

The mere fact that this case could go to trial puts the Biden administration in an awkward position. The plaintiffs filed their case in 2015, and the basic argument they made was that the U.S. government’s policies should align with the goals set out in the Paris Agreement of that same year. “So if the Biden administration fights this case, then it will raise questions about how committed it is to addressing climate change,” May told me. “But if it doesn’t, it will have to defend a brand new constitutional claim that nobody [outside of this district court in Oregon] has recognized. And the Department of Justice is unlikely to be comfortable with that.”

Olson gave some color on her team’s interactions with the Biden administration to Jacobin for a 2022 article. “I have asked [them] very directly, if we win this motion, and we can move forward with the case, do you intend to go to trial?” she said. “Their response has always been something along the lines of, ‘It is our position that the court doesn’t have jurisdiction and that this case should never go to trial.’” The Biden administration, the article said, didn’t respond to Jacobin’s requests for comment.

Some environmental activists worry that losing in front of a Supreme Court packed with conservative justices could be a blow to the environmental justice movement at large, but May thinks otherwise. “The plaintiffs are kind of playing with house money,” he said. “If they lose before the Supreme Court, so what? That kind of a [constitutional] claim has never been recognized. There has to be a first time you try it.”

Neel Dhanesha profile image

Neel Dhanesha

Neel is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Prior to Heatmap, he was a science and climate reporter at Vox, an editorial fellow at Audubon magazine, and an assistant producer at Radiolab, where he helped produce The Other Latif, a series about one detainee's journey to Guantanamo Bay. He is a graduate of the Literary Reportage program at NYU, which helped him turn incoherent scribbles into readable stories, and he grew up (mostly) in Bangalore. He tweets sporadically at @neel_dhan.


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