A federal judge in Oregon has dismissed objections brought by the U.S. government and representatives of the energy industry to allow a lawsuit filed on behalf of nearly two dozen young Americans and former NASA scientist James Hansen to proceed.
The plaintiffs, who apart from Hansen are between the ages of nine and 20, “are seeking a court order that requires the government to create a plan to dramatically slash greenhouse gas emissions released by the burning of fossil fuels,” ABC News reports.
The suit claims that “the federal government has known for decades that carbon pollution causes climate change but has failed to curb greenhouse gas emissions,” thus violating “its obligation to hold certain natural resources in trust for future generations.” It also argues that because this negligence has permitted future climate change that will cause significant destruction, it has further “violated their constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property.”
In agreeing to allow the suit to go forward, U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken leaned heavily on the doctrine of public trust. That doctrine, present in a variety of common law and other jurisdictions and repeatedly upheld in U.S. courts, dates to the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, who declared that “the following things are by natural law common to all: the air, running water, the sea, and consequently the seashore.”
“This action is of a different order than the typical environmental case,” Aiken wrote in her ruling, observing that “a deep resistance to change runs through defendants’ and intervenors’ arguments for dismissal.”
In other striking observations from her decision collected by Pacific Standard, Aiken wrote that “this lawsuit is not about proving that climate change is happening or that human activity is driving it. For the purposes of this motion, those facts are undisputed.”
“I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society,” the judge stated. “Plaintiffs have alleged a causal relationship between their injuries and defendants’ conduct. At this stage, I am bound to accept those allegations as true.”
The Obama administration, backed by the National Association of Manufacturers, the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, and the American Petroleum Institute, had asked Aiken to throw out the case, brought on behalf of the group of minors by the non-profit Our Children’s Trust.
The judge’s ruling allows the case to go to trial, where it is likely to be as strongly opposed by federal lawyers acting on the instruction of a Trump White House as it was on those from Obama’s. Meanwhile, ABC reports, calls asking for the U.S. Department of Justice’s reaction to the decision “were not immediately returned.”