John Sutter: Judge right not to toss out case brought by young people on climate change
Future generations will thank them for raising this issue so powerfully, Sutter says
Editor’s Note: John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion who focuses on climate change and social justice. Follow him on Snapchat, Facebook and email. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
It’s a case an attorney called “one of the most significant in our nation’s history.”
And, thankfully, on Friday, a federal judge pushed it much-much closer to trial.
Twenty-one young people (ages 8 to 19) are suing President Barack Obama and the federal government over making a mess of the planet for future generations.
It’s the climate version of David v. Goliath.
A bunch of kids suing the big-bad feds.
The government and fossil fuel groups had asked the court to toss out the federal case, but Judge Thomas Coffin on Friday denied those requests.
“The nascent nature of these proceedings dictate further development of the record before the court can adjudicate whether any claims or parties should not survive for trial,” Coffin wrote in the decision. “Accordingly, the court should deny the motions to dismiss.”
The decision still needs to be reviewed by another judge before it goes to trial. But an attorney for the climate kids, Philip Gregory, told me there is a “high likelihood” it will pass that review.
“This decision was our biggest hurdle,” said Julia Olson, executive director of Our Children’s Trust, an advocacy group behind this and other lawsuits on behalf of young people.
In a statement, the group called it a “major victory.”
To me, part of that victory is getting all of us to look at climate change differently.
The climate kids’ argument is multifaceted and nuanced, bringing in concepts of public trust doctrine as well as constitutional rights to life, liberty and property. But one of the oh-wow points they’re making is this: Young people and unborn generations are being discriminated against when it comes to the U.S. propagation of climate change.
They will live through an era of rising seas, heat waves, droughts, floods and extinctions that are without precedent. Yet they have little or no voice in the political system that, despite some bold steps in the right direction, continues to lease federal property for fossil fuel extraction and continues to subsidize pollution.
That is a profoundly smart way to reframe the way we think about this too-often-divisive topic. We owe it not just to ourselves to get off of fossil fuels as soon as possible, but we also owe it to people who are still too young to vote, and to those who haven’t even been born yet.
We’re infringing on their rights by doing nothing, or, in the case of the federal government, by continuing to permit extraction of harmful fossil fuels on public lands.
Burning oil, gas and coal for energy and transportation causes global warming. The U.S. government has known that for years and years, yet, as this lawsuit alleges, officials have continued to pursue harmful practices while knowing their actions would have dire future consequences.
The youth plaintiffs want the feds to come up with a wholesale plan to fight climate change.
To date, the solutions have been piecemeal.
To do that, the world needs to be carbon neutral – basically no fossil fuels – by about 2050 or so.
In March, I went to see these climate kids in court in Eugene, Oregon. That’s when the judge heard the government’s motion to dismiss their case. I remember seeing the backs of a few of the young plaintiffs’ heads barely popping out over the benches in the courtroom. And I remember thinking how monumentally significant this case could be. Even if they aren’t able to force the U.S. government to take much bolder action on climate change, these kids are the ones who stuck their necks out and insisted they should.
Their great-great grandchildren will thank them.
So should we.