Children are taking climate change to the courts

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Plaintiffs in the children’s lawsuit cheering on a recent favorable ruling. Credit: Our Children’s Trust

The judiciary is familiar battleground for veteran climate activists, but today, it’s kids who are pioneering a new strategy in our courtrooms. And despite the long odds against them, they’re going further than many legal experts expected—becoming a political force to reckon with along the way.

In the United States, eyes are on the Oregon-based Our Children’s Trust in particular for its lawsuits in federal and state courts filed against the government and the fossil fuel industry. The latest federal lawsuit, whose plaintiffs include children aged 8 to 19 and famed NASA climate scientist James Hansen, recently enjoyed a small but important victory. In April, the federal district court in Eugene, Oregon ruled against motions to dismiss the case and allowed it move forward.

While these plaintiffs’ youth creates special moral standing, it’s core to their legal claims as well: their charge is that the government is violating their constitutional rights by promoting fossil fuel exploitation, which produces climate-destabilizing carbon pollution. Climate change advocacy is about saving ourselves—all of us—but as they note, by age group today’s youngest people would bear the worst impacts of climate change and for the longest under the status quo.

Celebrations at The Hague after court orders Dutch government to cut carbon emissions. Credit: Urgenda, the organization that brought the lawsuit.

Celebrations at The Hague after court orders Dutch government to cut carbon emissions. Credit: Urgenda, the organization that brought the lawsuit.

Whether or not the children’s lawsuits succeed on their legal merits, they represent an intriguing combination of new and classic strategies in the fight against global warming: litigation, in America and abroad, and young people organizing, agitating, and leading the way. In fact, similar citizens’ lawsuits and legal strategies are popping up in other nations; in one remarkable 2015 ruling in the Netherlands, the Dutch court directly ordered its government to cut carbon emissions. The growing body of scientific and legal expertise, including reports documenting the liability of carbon polluters, is helping to make such cases possible.

Companies can’t avoid taking notice. The litigation is generating national news coverage around climate change and politically putting opponents on the defense—including representatives of ExxonMobil, BP, and Koch Industries. As one headline summarized, “[a]s climate lawsuits heat up, doing nothing becomes riskier business.”

Because multinational public companies based in the U.S. are subject to Securities and Exchange Commission rules to disclose their climate risks, the lawsuits could also create a powerful impetus for climate activists to sharpen investor disclosure rules around foreign court judgments.

One professor of international law, and a co-author of a key report on the potential liability of polluters, explained one of the general strategies afoot: “What we’re doing as environmental lawyers is simply saying to companies and investors, you might not have considered the possibility of foreign judgments and what that might mean.”

The sobering reality is that opponents of strong action on climate change, such as the Kochs, are already expanding their work abroad. But if this new movement takes off, expect to see more lawsuits filed on behalf of climate change advocacy in courts in the United States and around the world—including litigation pursued by the youngest generation.

For more information about the legal claims in the Children’s Trust lawsuit filed in federal court in Oregon (case 6:15-cv-01517-TC), see “Lawsuit Alleges that U.S. Government Violated Constitutional Rights of America’s Youth by Promoting the Development and Use of Fossil Fuels,” Lexis-Nexis; “Our Children’s Trust Suit Against US Government Surmounts Litigation Hurdle,” Climate Law Blog, Columbia Law School; and “Sidley Squares Off Against Youth Activists in Climate Suit,” The American Lawyer Daily.

For a list of domestic and international climate change case law, a good resource is Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.