Kids Just Won The Right To Sue The Government For Global Warming
One of the main fears an impending Trump presidency has spawned (alongside deportation threats and diminishing civil rights) is that the gradual environmental progress we’ve made as a country could be swept away practically overnight. Luckily, the youngest generations who are most at risk made a major stand by winning their right to sue the government over climate change.
Last Thursday, U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken delivered a favorable ruling for 21 young plaintiffs that determined their lawsuit against the government and the fossil fuel industry to be valid. According to the plaintiffs, aged from 9 to 20 years old, the federal government’s active contribution to global warming poses a serious threat to the livelihood of current and future generations. Judge Aiken agreed, writing in her ruling, “Federal courts too often have been cautious and overly deferential in the arena of environmental law, and the world has suffered for it … This lawsuit is not about proving that climate change is happening or that human activity is driving it. For the purposes of this motion, those facts are undisputed.”
For the young plaintiffs who filed this lawsuit—as well as for climate activists around the country—this validation is a huge win. Climate expert James Hansen, who’s been advocating for progressive change since the ’80s, backed the youth group by serving as a “guardian for future generations.” Among the plaintiffs is 13-year-old Jayden Foytlin, who states on the website of the advocacy group Our Children’s Trust, “Our government seems to care more about money for the fossil fuel industry than our futures. But money isn’t going to matter if we can’t fix our planet.” Fellow plaintiff Xiuhtezcatl Martinez echoed this concern with a call to action, saying in a statement,
“My generation is rewriting history. We’re doing what so many people told us we were incapable of doing: holding our leaders accountable for their disastrous and dangerous actions. I and my co-plaintiffs are demanding justice for our generation and justice for all future generations. This is going to be the trial of our lifetimes.”
Though it’s important to note that they did not arrive at this legal win without facing challenges. According to Motherboard, the federal government, along with the National Association of Manufacturers, the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, and the American Petroleum Institute all filed a motion to have the case dismissed in 2015 on the grounds that the youth group failed to state a claim. Before retiring and passing the case on to Judge Aiken, U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin denied their request even as the agencies appealed. The case will now go to trial, though a date has yet to be determined.
Even while Slate writer Eric Holthaus predicts defendants will draw out this lawsuit as long as possible and prevent immediate policy changes, it’s the act of holding elected officials accountable that will inevitably make a difference—or at least stem the bleed. Since we started burning fossil fuels less than two centuries ago, there’s been a 25 percent uptick in carbon dioxide pooling into the atmosphere. As NASA has repeatedly pointed out, increasing levels of carbon dioxide cause disastrous effects across the globe, existing evidence of which is overwhelming. Holding the U.S. government responsible will be more important than ever, now that our incoming president believes climate change is a hoax. While we may never be able to convince him of reality, we can empower our democracy to make his personal beliefs irrelevant.