Meaningful action to mitigate the impacts of climate change have been slow to materialize in the United States, and that lag in leadership is allowing the threat to grow much worse for future generations of Americans.
But political inaction has led to citizen action, particularly among the generations that will face the consequences of inaction. And they are making the case, literally, that the government needs to take action.
Teenagers Kelsey Juliana and Olivia Chernaik have filed a lawsuit against Democratic Oregon governor John Kitzhaber and the entire state government of Oregon, alleging that they are not doing enough to address the threats of climate change.
Pre-trial motions were filed in circuit court Jan. 9 and argument on the motions has been scheduled for March.
“This could be a landmark decision on the question: Does government, as trustee over our essential natural resources, have to protect it from carbon pollution and the impacts of climate disruption?” said Julia Olson, executive director of the nonprofit Our Children’s Trust, and originator of a suite of youth-led lawsuits since 2011.
The Oregon lawsuit is the furthest along, and the one to watch, experts say. Initially shot down by Lane County Circuit Court in 2011, the lawsuit gained fresh traction in June, when the Oregon Court of Appeals ordered the lower court to decide whether the atmosphere is a public trust that the state has a duty to protect. The appeals court ruling reversed the lower court’s finding that state decisions about natural resources are political matters outside the court’s authority.
The teens’ suit seeks to force the state of Oregon to develop an action plan on how to deal with the effects of climate change, a move and legal precedent that they hope others will emulate to force other states, and the federal government, to take the same steps.
As The Huffington Post points out, the case relies on the concept that elected officials are trusted to act as the “trustee” of the public good, including the health of the land. According to this notion, if the government acts in a way that is not in the best interest of the land and harms the future of its viability, they can be held accountable for their actions (or in this case, their inaction).
These seemingly small lawsuit does pose a very serious threat to politicians who refuse to accept and act on the threat of climate change.
Should the plaintiffs find themselves successful in court – which could easily happen – then the precedent would force action on the issue.
While it is sad that this case is even necessary, it is remarkable and admirable that these two young girls have decided that they are willing to take action in the place of our elected officials.