In Children's Climate Change Lawsuit, Judge Affirms States' Obligation to Protect Future Generations

Posted Dec. 2, 2015

MP3 Interview with Julia Olson, executive director of Our Children's Trust, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

children

Over the past several years, lawsuits have been filed in several states against the U.S. government demanding that officials take action specifically to protect children from the impacts of climate change, as they and their descendants will be the ones affected most. James Hanson, perhaps the best-known climate scientist in the U.S. who first testified before Congress on the issue back in 1988, has provided expert testimony in some of these cases.

On Nov. 19, King County Superior Court Judge Hollis R. Hill in Seattle issued a groundbreaking ruling in the case of eight youth petitioners, represented by the Western Environmental Law Center, who requested that the Washington Department of Ecology write a carbon emissions rule that protects the atmosphere for their generation and those to come. While the judge denied the children's petition to force the state to adopt stricter regulations, she wrote, "[the youths'] very survival depends upon the will of their elders to act now, decisively and unequivocally, to stem the tide of global warming ... before doing so becomes first too costly, and then too late." Judge Hill ruled the public trust doctrine mandates that the state act through its designated agency "to protect what it holds in trust." In its decision, the court validated the youths' claim that the "scientific evidence is clear that the current rates of [greenhouse gas] reduction mandated by Washington state law cannot ensure the survival of an environment in which [youth] can grow to adulthood safely."

Between The Lines' Melinda Tuhus spoke with Julia Olson, executive director of Our Children's Trust, the group which brought this lawsuit, along with claims in several other states. The children the Trust represented in Washington state are members of a global environmental youth organization called Plant for the Planet. Here, Olson describes the significance of the ruling for these children and for similar cases pending across the country.

JULIA OLSON: So, one reason why the decision is slightly confusing is because of the procedural posture of the case. So, basically, if you look at what the young people were trying to achieve from the beginning, they wanted their state to engage in a rule-making to set limits on carbon dioxide emissions, and they wanted their legal rights to be protected: their rights to healthy public trust resources and their constitutional right to live in a healthful environment, and what they got at the end of the day are both of those things. But the way it came about is a little bit nuanced. So basically, because the governor, during the course of the litigation, ordered the Department of Ecology to start the rule-making. That took part of that remedy away from the court, so the court at that point didn’t need to order a rule-making, because the department had already agreed to start one. So that’s the first thing. But what the kids still needed was they needed the court to tell the Department of Ecology that they had the law wrong, because the Department of Ecology was saying that they didn’t have to protect the environment for these kids; that they didn’t have a constitutional obligation to act; that they weren’t public trustees that had to help address climate change. They were denying all the legal arguments that the youth had brought to the court. So the court gave the kids the second piece that they needed. So basically she said, I can’t order them to do a rule-making; they’re not acting illegally any more on that piece, because they’re doing the rule-making. But I can tell them what the law requires them to do, and I’m going to clarify for them that they are public trustees; they need to address climate change and ocean acidification in the state of Washington; they have a constitutional obligation to act and protect these kids’ rights, and when they act, they need to consider science. So that piece of it is an enormous win for these youth, and for everybody in the state of Washington.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Climate change is obviously a global problem, so how will this ruling impact climate change and how will it help to protect these children?

JULIA OLSON: Climate change is absolutely a global problem, but the solutions lie at the level of the state or the nation state. We don’t have a global government that can order something to happen around the world. We have our process where every country and every state is responsible for what happens within its jurisdiction. So we need every state and every nation around the world to do its part to reduce emissions in order to stabilize the climate system. And Washington is one piece of that. It’s why youth are going after other states in the U.S. and why they have a lawsuit against the federal government and why kids are starting to sue other governments around the world as well, because every government

BETWEEN THE LINES: This is the first successful lawsuit around this issue, right?

JULIA OLSON: Yes, that’s right. So this is the first time the young people have actually gotten the remedy they were seeking, which is the rule-making to set limits on carbon emissions and the definition of their legal rights

BETWEEN THE LINES: Can this ruling be used as precedent in these other cases?

JULIA OLSON: Yeah, so, when a district court or a lower court makes a decision, it’s not binding precedent on other courts or on other states, but it is really persuasive to other judges to see how a court in a particular jurisdiction has addressed the issues. And the fact that this court has been really clear that the young people’s survival is at stake; that you can’t protect navigable waters of a state if you’re not also looking at the connectivity between the atmosphere and carbon pollution and its impact on those waters. She’s made some very powerful rulings in her decision, and that will be persuasive to other courts around the country, and the world.

For more information, visit Our Children's Trust at ourchildrenstrust.org and the Washington state chapter at ourchildrenstrust.org/state/washington.

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