Kids Sue the Government for Action on Climate Change

Kids angry that they will “bear the brunt of global warming” have taken up suing the government in order to force action on climate change.  Specifically, “that government at every level has an obligation to protect natural resources, including the atmosphere, as a ‘public trust’ for future generations.”


The Oregon-based nonprofit Our Children’s Trust has been leading efforts to file lawsuits or administrative petitions in every state and against the federal government. Some of the youth-led cases have been dismissed, while others are pending in states including Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Oregon.

They haven’t had much success. “None of them have gotten to the finish line,” said Michael Gerrard, a professor and director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University. “It’s an uphill climb. The U.S. courts have so far not wanted to set climate policy.”

One such example is in Washington state. “In Seattle, eight activists between ages 10 and 15 petitioned Washington state last year to adopt stricter science-based regulations to protect them against climate change. The case has been moving through a state court, and oral arguments are scheduled Tuesday.”

“We’re the ones who have to live with it if the oceans are acidic and the planet is 5 degrees warmer,” said Gabriel Mandell, 13, an eighth-grader and plaintiff in the case. “The snowpack is melting. Ocean is acidifying. The Earth is warming. Everything that can go wrong is going wrong, and we need to fix it.”


Oh good grief.

What’s the legal argument here? “Mandell and other youths represented by the Western Environmental Law Center argue that Washington state has failed to reduce carbon emissions based on the best available science. They say the government has violated its duties under the state constitution and the legal principle called the public trust doctrine, which requires the government to protect shared resources.”

And the state is concerned about the environment too. “Climate change is the most important environmental problem,” said Stu Clark, Washington’s air quality program manager. “We need to do whatever we can. We are doing what we can with what we have.” Not enough, buddy, not enough.

Does the public trust doctrine apply to the planet earth? And what kind of standing do these kids have to sue the government? Experts on the law are skeptical.

“I don’t think this litigation is going to be successful because climate change is a global problem, and it’s not clear what a state could do,” added Richard Stewart, a law professor at New York University. “A state could do certain things, but it can only make an infinitesimal contribution.”

These kinds of suits are cropping up all over the place.


In Oregon, two Eugene teens are appealing after a state judge rejected their petition in May. The judge ruled that Oregon’s public trust doctrine does not apply to the atmosphere, water, beaches and shorelines.

In August, 21 youths across the country sued the federal government, alleging that approval of fossil fuel development has violated the fundamental right of citizens to be free from government actions that harm life, liberty and property.

“The government isn’t doing the best to assure that we have the best quality of life,” one of the plaintiffs Aji Piper, 15, a Seattle high school sophomore, said. “It holds more urgency for us. Our future is at hand.”

Do you think these kids decided to sue the government? Or do you think the they had a lot help from the well-heeled environmentalists?




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