After Missoula talk, kids’ climate change suit against U.S. headed to trial

Nathan Baring, who spoke at the Roxy Theater in February, has joined 20 other youth from across the country in suing the Trump administration and several federal agencies for violating their right to life and liberty by promoting climate change. (Missoula Current photo)

(Courthouse News Service) Two dozen kids who claim the federal government knowingly created climate change have cleared the final barrier to trial: the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday refused to intervene, calling the government’s request for a stay of the trial “premature.”

One of those kids, Nathan Baring, spoke on the topic in Missoula in February.

The order signals the end of a flurry of attempts by the government to get the case tossed out ahead of trial, which is set to begin Oct. 29. The kids sued the government in 2015, claiming it knowingly created climate change by ignoring a century of its own science in favor of policies and subsidies that propelled the fossil fuel industry.

Since then, the kids’ lawyer, Julia Olson, executive director of Our Children’s Trust, has filed detailed briefs describing what she claims are the government’s deliberate actions to destabilize the global climate. Olson argues climate change has caused her clients specific harms in the present – health problems like asthma and anxiety as well as threatening their housing security, as in the case of one Florida teen displaced by a hurricane.

But she also argues a novel legal theory: that the government’s actions violate her clients’ right to a habitable climate. Baring offered similar sentiments while in Missoula.

“The U.S. government is an active player in this,” Baring said. “They’re not sitting on the sidelines. We’re not suing for inaction, but rather for the government’s actions in promoting the climate crisis.”

The government has argued variously that the Constitution guarantees no such right, that the case should be tossed out because it threatens the separation of powers by asking a judge to decide national climate policy and, most recently, that the case is moot because climate change has progressed past the point where U.S. actions alone could avert global disaster.

U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken bought none of it, insisting that the case would go to trial. The government lost two appeals to the Ninth Circuit before being shot down by the Supreme Court.

Another difficulty for the government is the history of its own briefs in the case, which was filed during the Obama administration. Barely two weeks before President Donald Trump took office, Obama’s Justice Department filed a reply to the kids’ lawsuit acknowledging in alarming detail the degree to which climate change has progressed, the calamitous threat it poses to current and future generations and some of the government’s role in causing the situation.

Attorneys who took over the case after Trump took office couldn’t erase that document trail. So they may end up trying to defend a document that paints a devastatingly bleak environmental future and acknowledges the government has known for decades that it was making the situation worse. Or they could try presenting evidence in the rigorous environment of a federal courtroom that climate change either does not exist or is not caused by humans.

While government attorneys may not be celebrating the ruling, the kids – like Jacob L., a 21-year-old plaintiff whose southern Oregon hometown is currently engulfed in smoke from the raging and deadly Carr Fire burning in Northern California – are pretty pleased.

“I am so grateful that the Supreme Court has recognized the importance of this trial and allowed our case to proceed,” Jacob L. said Monday. “The scientific evidence linking the U.S. government’s actions and policies to climate change impacts like wildfire and droughts that harm us youth must be presented before our country’s justice system in its entirety to ensure that our rights may be protected.”

Olson, the kids’ attorney, said Monday that the Supreme Court’s ruling “should give young people courage and hope.”

She added: “We look forward to presenting the scientific evidence of the harms and dangers these children face as a result of the actions their government has taken to cause the climate crisis.”