A group of teenagers are suing the federal government, demanding it “take action to protect the atmosphere for future generations,” as reported by Grist.
Their original lawsuit was filed in 2011, and on Oct. 3, represented by Oregon-based nonprofit Our Children’s Trust, the filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court.
As Grit notes: “The petition is a crazy longshot. The Supreme Court grants about 1 percent of such petitions, leaving the decisions of lower courts to stand without review in the other 99 percent of cases. And in this case, the lower court ruled against the teens: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit found in June of this year that there is no “federal constitutional foundation” for the suit — protecting natural resources is a matter of state law.”
*So, even while trying to push its federal case to the Supreme Court, Our Children’s Trust is also now pursuing similar legal action in every state of the union. And the basic idea behind the kids’ lawsuits — that the government must protect the atmosphere as it would other natural and cultural resources — has the potential to change how we think about ownership of nature and the climate crisis. Ecological economist Bob Costanza even coined a catchy name for it: “claim the sky.”*
That being said, the case does have merits. As Grit reported in 201, the original lawsuit was “based on a legal theory developed by University of Oregon law professor Mary Wood called ‘atmospheric trust litigation.’ The theory ‘rests on the premise that all governments hold natural resources in trust for their citizens and bear the fiduciary obligation to protect such resources for future generations,’ according to Wood’s web page.”
*Julia Olson, of Our Children’s Trust, a nonprofit group supporting the lawsuit, likened this obligation to the duty parents have to protect money in a kid’s college trust fund. If the trustees of that fund went and squandered the money, the child could sue them. So these kids are expanding that idea and suing the government for squandering their future.*
As Grit reported this week, Andrea Rodgers, an attorney working on atmospheric trust litigation in Washington state says “Judges are very leery to step in and make sure that the state legislatures are fulfilling their responsibility.” However, their is some precedent that public opinion can sway the judiciary.
*Rodgers points to the movements for civil rights and gay marriage as evidence that what the citizens deem to be just and unjust can shape how judges apply the law. And framing the legal question of who should be held accountable for fixing the climate around future generations — that is, the children — could be just the spark that the climate movement needs.*
“In a way, this is our next civil rights movement,” she says. “These are kids whose right to a healthy and livable future are being denied.”
Law experts Andrew Gage and Michael Byers are hopeful as well. In a recently published a piece called “Why climate litigation could soon go global” in The Globe and Mail they wrote:
*So far, the fossil fuel industry has successfully opposed litigation for climate damages, brought in the United States by victims of hurricanes and sea level rise. But new areas of litigation often fail at first; in the 1980s, tobacco companies were still boasting that they “have never lost a case to a consumer, have never settled, and do not expect that picture to change.” As the tobacco industry learned, changes to the interpretation and application of laws sometimes occur quite rapidly.*
Of course, they are speaking of corporation and not governments, yet – once the precedent is set of holding any entity accountable for climate the sky could be the limit.
*Also see http://grist.org/climate-energy/these-teens-are-taking-their-climate-lawsuit-all-the-way-to-the-supreme-court/
Learn more here http://grist.org/climate-change/2011-12-08-the-young-and-the-restless-kids-sue-government-over-climate-chan/