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Critical Climate Change Lawsuit Brought before the United States Supreme Court by America’s Youth Washington, D.C
Background: Federal Lawsuit. Five individual teenagers, and two non-profit organizations representing thousands more young people, Kids vs. Global Warming and WildEarth Guardians, partnered with OUR CHILDREN’S TRUST to file this federal lawsuit (lawsuit filed in May 2011) now pending at the U.S. Supreme Court. The youth seek to require the federal government to immediately plan for national climate recovery according to the scientific prescription of Dr. James Hansen and other leading international climate scientists that will restore our atmosphere to 350 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 by the end of the century and avoid the disastrous scenarios of 2°C of warming. This lawsuit relies upon the long-established legal principle of the Public Trust Doctrine, which requires our government to protect and maintain survival resources for future generations.
Youth Climate Advocates File Petition for Writ of Certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court
On October 3, 2014, youth represented by OUR CHILDREN’S TRUST’s legal team filed a Petition for Writ of Certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court to confirm the federal government’s obligation to protect essential natural resources for the benefit of future generations.
This Petition is in response to a decision in the youths’ federal case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Despite outstanding support for the youths’ case from 111 individual law professors, scientists, national security experts, government officials, environmental, human rights and labor NGOs, indigenous community members, and faith-based organizations, all of whom signed powerful amici curiae (“friends of the court”) brief, the Court of Appeals held that there is no “federal constitutional foundation for [the public trust] doctrine.” We believe the Court’s holding is erroneous and in conflict with the decisions of other Circuit Courts and those of the U.S. Supreme Court. In fact, the federal government itself, and several District Courts, have for years also relied upon the very federal public trust doctrine the Court of Appeals said does not exist at all.
The Court of Appeals relied on a narrow U.S. Supreme Court decision written by Justice Kennedy as support for its expansive ruling. PPL Mont., LLC v. Montana, 132 S. Ct. 1215 (2012). That decision was specifically limited to a very different legal doctrine (the Equal Footing Doctrine) than youth relied upon in their case (the Public Trust Doctrine). Nowhere in the two paragraphs of dicta referencing the public trust doctrine does the U.S. Supreme Court find in PPL Mont., as the Court of Appeals determined in our case, that the long-standing public trust doctrine does not exist in federal law or apply to the federal government.
The Supreme Court generally disfavors expansive interpretations of its narrow decisions. Supreme Court justices strive to ensure that their decisions are limited only to the facts at hand and that those decisions are not misapplied to different sets of facts. We expect that the Court would not want their narrow PPL Montana decision about the Equal Footing Doctrine, as narrowly applied therein to state obligations involving water resources located within state borders, broadly applied in our case to federal obligations involving atmospheric resources that cross state borders. Thus, we believe the Court will be inclined to remedy the Court of Appeals’ expansive interpretation of their narrow PPL Montana decision and will reverse the Circuit Court. As well, we believe that the majority of the Supreme Court justices are climate believers who will be invested in preserving potential governmental remedies for climate recovery in face of the narrow window in which science tells them they have to do so.
Read the Petition for Writ of Certiorari here and Press Release here.
PETITION FOR A WRIT OF CERTIORARI
The questions presented are:
- Does the public trust doctrine apply to the federal government?
- Do Article III courts have jurisdiction to enforce the public trust against the federal government?
Petitioners (appellants below) are Alec L., by and through his Guardian
Ad Litem Victoria Loorz; Victoria Loorz; Madeleine W., by and through her Guardian Ad Litem Janet Wallace; Janet Wallace; Garrett S., by and through his Guardian Ad Litem Valerie Serrels; Grant S., by and through his Guardian Ad Litem Valerie Serrels; Valerie Serrels; Zoe J., by and through her Guardian Ad Litem Nina Grove; Nina Grove; Kids vs. Global Warming, a project of Earth Island Institute, a non-profit organization; and WildEarth Guardians, a non-profit organization.
Respondents (appellees below) are Gina McCarthy in her official capacity as Administrator of the United States Environmental Protection Agency; Sally Jewell in her official capacity as Secretary of the United States Department of the Interior; Thomas James Vilsack in his official capacity as Secretary of the United States Department of Agriculture; Penny Pritzker in her official capacity as Secretary of the United States Department of Commerce; Ernest Moniz in his official capacity as Secretary of the United States Department of Energy; Chuck Hagel in his official capacity as Secretary of the United States Department of Defense; the United States Environmental Protection Agency; the United States Department of Interior; the United States Department of Agriculture; the United States Department of Commerce; the United States Department of Energy; and the United States Department of Defense.
Critical Climate Change Lawsuit Brought before the United States Supreme Court by America’s Youth Washington, D.C
On October 3, 2014, a Petition was filed with the United States Supreme Court on behalf of a group of young Americans, seeking a decision that the federal government is obligated to protect essential natural resources. The Petition arises out of a lawsuit filed in May 2011 by five teenagers against six U.S. federal agencies under the Public Trust Doctrine to require the federal government to immediately implement a science-based climate recovery plan to protect our nation’s atmosphere.
“This case relies on a foundational principle of government—the Public Trust Doctrine,” said Julia Olson, attorney for the Youth Petitioners and Executive Director of Our Children’s Trust. “Public trust principles go back to the Emperor Justinian, the Magna Carta, and our Country’s founding documents. Our Petition asks the Supreme Court to determine whether, under this long-standing doctrine, the federal government must act to protect essential natural resources.”
The youth are appealing a decision by the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The decision held that the federal government has no obligation to protect any natural resource under the Public Trust Doctrine, and that any such obligation lies only with the individual states. The Court of Appeals ruling is in conflict with decisions issued by courts throughout the world, including multiple U.S. courts of appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court.
“There is enormous national importance for the Supreme Court to decide the issues in this case now, because of the narrow window left to address global climate change,” said renowned constitutional law scholar and professor Erwin Chemerinsky, who recently joined the team of attorneys representing the Youth Petitioners in their case. “We hope the Supreme Court will understand the extreme implications of the D.C. Circuit’s opinion, specifically the consequences of the federal government’s inability to assert its public trust authority in the future concerning essential public resources.”
Climate change is the greatest threat to our constitutional rights and liberties that humanity has ever seen. The lower court in the District of Columbia agreed: “This is a very important case, this is an important issue, and it raises serious questions.” In the three years since the complaint was filed, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have risen from 390 parts per million (ppm) to 397 ppm, and those levels are still rising. The maximum level of carbon dioxide the earth’s atmosphere can tolerate if there is to be any hope of reversing catastrophic global warming is 350 ppm.
“Establishing climate justice is different from other civil rights struggles,” declared Phil Gregory, attorney for the Youth Petitioners and a partner at Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy. “In many civil rights cases, the next generation could always remedy the wrongs of prior generations. With the limited window left to fix the climate crisis, for the first time in human history, future generations will not have the opportunity to repair the serious problems we have created. The science is indisputable: our generation is the only one who can restore a stable climate system for future generations.”
The Supreme Court Petition contends the federal government has the power and obligation to address this catastrophic deterioration of the nation’s atmosphere, but has refused to do so. The Petition urges that global climate change is accelerating at an alarming pace that will soon escape the reach of corrective measures. The Petition states, in part: “The narrow window of time left to address global climate change and the significant consequences to the welfare of our nation’s children and future generations add urgency to the legal issue. The D.C. Circuit’s complete refusal to recognize the public trust doctrine turns a blind eye to the federal government’s responsibility to future generations and undermines the federal government’s ability to assert its
public trust authority in the future to conserve public resources.” The Petition concludes that the federal officials named as defendants in the action have the power and obligation to address this catastrophic deterioration of the nation’s atmosphere, but have refused to do so.
“Climate change is the largest intergenerational justice issue in the world,” said Alec Loorz, one of the Youth Plaintiffs and founder of Kids vs. Global Warming and iMatter. “We are running out of time. If our government does not act now, we endanger the lives of our youngest generations and generations to come. Without a comprehensive plan for climate recovery by the U.S. government, we cannot achieve the scientifically necessary restoration of our atmosphere. We are asking the Supreme Court to do what is right for all of us, our children, and our children’s children.”
To learn more about this case, visit: http://www.ourchildrenstrust.org/US/Federal-Lawsuit. To watch A Climate of TRUST, the newest film in the 10-part award-winning documentary series Stories of TRUST: Calling for Climate Recovery, visit: http://www.ourchildrenstrust.org/trust-films/AClimateOfTRUST. Support the youth taking legal action by signing their pledge here: http://www.ourchildrenstrust.org/sign-our-pledge-support.
Our Children’s Trust is a nonprofit advocating for urgent emissions reductions on behalf of youth and future generations, who have the most to lose. OCT is spearheading a federal, state, local and international human rights and environmental justice campaign to establish the legal right to a healthy atmosphere and stable climate. We use law, film, and media to elevate the compelling youth voice seeking enforceable science-based Climate Recovery Plans. http://www.ourchildrenstrust.org
For inquiries or interview requests, please contact:
- Phil Gregory (650) 697-6000
- Julia Olson (415) 786-4825
The public trust doctrine is the principle that certain of our planet’s resources are preserved for public use, and that the government is required to maintain them for reasonable use by the public.
“Atmospheric CO2 concentrations passed the level that Amici Scientists consider a safe initial target [of 350 ppm] in, approximately, 1988.”