On Friday, April 8, U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin of the federal District Court in Eugene, Oregon ruled that Juliana vs. United States, a suit brought by 21 young people ranging in ages from 8 to 19, may proceed. The suit, which is supported by Our Children’s Trust,  claims the federal government is violating their rights as guaranteed by the Constitution to life. liberty, and property by permitting, encouraging, and otherwise enabling continued exploitation, production, and combustion of fossil fuels.

Young plaintiffs in climate change suit

Dr. James Hansen, a staunch advocate for climate change action, is also a plaintiff in the case. Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein call the legal action, “most important lawsuit on the planet right now.” McKibben was recently arrested along with 56 other people protesting a plan to store natural gas beneath Seneca Lake in upstate New York.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Philip Gregory with the law firm of Cotchett, Pitre, & McCarthy of Burlingame, CA, tells the press, “This decision is one of the most significant in our nation’s history. The Court upheld our claims that the federal government intensified the danger to our plaintiffs’ lives, liberty and property. Judge Coffin decided our Complaint will move forward and put climate science squarely in front of the federal courts. The next step is for the Court to order our government to cease jeopardizing the climate system for present and future generations. The Court gave America’s youth a fair opportunity to be heard.”

Judge Coffin characterized the case as an “unprecedented lawsuit” addressing “government action and inaction” resulting “in carbon pollution of the atmosphere, climate destabilization, and ocean acidification.” In deciding the case can proceed, Judge Coffin wrote: “The debate about climate change and its impact has been before various political bodies for some time now. Plaintiffs give this debate justiciability by asserting harms that befall or will befall them personally and to a greater extent than older segments of society.

“It may be that eventually the alleged harms, assuming the correctness of plaintiffs’ analysis of the impacts of global climate change, will befall all of us. But the intractability of the debates before Congress and state legislatures and the alleged valuing of short term economic interest despite the cost to human life, necessitates a need for the courts to evaluate the constitutional parameters of the action or inaction taken by the government. This is especially true when such harms have an alleged disparate impact on a discrete class of society.”

This is only a preliminary step in what could be a long and torturous legal process. Eventually, it could wind up before the US Supreme Court. Rest assured that conservative groups funded by fossil fuel interests will marshal their enormous resources to fight the case every step of the way.

Much of the impetus for the suit can  be traced to implacable opposition to addressing the climate change issue from political stooges like Senate president Mitch McConnell, who is a bought and paid for mouthpiece for Big Coal. He is the one who declared that President Obama’s Clean Transportation Plan, which included a very modest $10 per barrel fee on oil, was “dead on arrival” in the Senate even before the President submitted it to Congress.

It is an illustration of how dysfunctional America has become when people like Bill McKibben get arrested for opposing an outrageous scheme that will put millions of people at risk of environmental harm but malefactors like McConnell get to keep their powerful jobs, all of which come with lavish benefits at public expense.

Perhaps America needs to spend more time listening to its children and less time listening to doddering old fools who are willing to sell out their constituents for 30 pieces of silver. If you want to know more about this issue, please read Naomi Klein’s excellent book This Changes Everything, Capitalism Vs. Climate for a documented, fully footnoted look at who is behind the drive to continue to burning fossil fuels despite the evidence that it endangers every person on earth as well as those yet to come.

Photo credit: The Guardian