On March 9, a group of children and teenagers from different corners of the United States convened in the U.S. District Courthouse in Oregon.
The occasion? The group Our Children's Trust filed a lawsuit against President Barack Obama and several federal agencies in September for inaction on climate change, asserting that such inaction amounts to discrimination against youth as a class. Lawyers for the group were in Eugene, Oregon, to argue against lawyers representing the U.S. government and the fossil fuel industry.
Even if the case ultimately gets thrown out by the Justice Department or is lost, the kids filing the lawsuit have brought up an excellent question: When and how does society take responsibility for saddling its youngest members with new burdens that previous generations did not have to contend with?
We hear this argument in politics all the time, especially when politicians talk about entitlements, the U.S. national debt and the loss of economic opportunities for lower-skilled workers.
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Yet it applies just as much to the environment we live in. No one can know for sure what exactly climate change will bring in the future, but a few things seems clear: more intense summers and winters, more extreme weather events and sea level rises. Carbon emissions have long been known to cause global warming and climate change by both the federal government and oil companies like ExxonMobil, although some still argue "climate change is a lie."
Why is Our Children's Trust suing the federal government, rather than the fossil fuel industry alone? Grist reports the group is suing under the Fifth Amendment and the public trust doctrine. The group argues that by failing to act on climate change, the government is infringing on the rights of the younger generation to life, liberty and property by depriving them access to a healthy climate.
Under the public trust doctrine, which dates back more than one thousand years, governments have the duty to protect certain natural resources and systems on behalf of current and future generations.
These are salient points whether or not one thinks acknowledging them legally would entail the destruction of the U.S. economy. The lawsuit is apparently serious enough to warrant attention from the American Petroleum Institute, the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers and the National Association of Manufacturers.
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These groups can sense the pressure to act on climate change ratcheting up, and they recognize that the points made by Our Children's Trust are starting to resonate more with the public as more people become directly affected by the consequences of a changing climate.
The Justice Department has filed a motion to dismiss the complaint, which the federal judge at the March 9 hearing considered. Even if the suit is lost, it may set the stage for future lawsuits like it and convince members of Congress to finally enact consequential change.