Could a group of children make Trump tackle climate change?

‘Unprecedented’ lawsuit could force administration to rapidly decarbonise American economy

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Supporters of Our Children’s Trust attend a rally outside the US Supreme Court
(Image credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

A group of children suing the US government for failing to protect them against climate change could force Donald Trump to rapidly decarbonise the American economy if the courts rule in their favour.

The Juliana v. United States lawsuit, which was first filed in 2015, accuses successive US administrations going all the way back to the 1960s of knowing about the dangers of man-made climate change but not taking sufficient action to protect US citizens from its causes. The suit also alleges that not only did the federal government fail to act to limit global warming, but it also profited from selling coal, oil, and gas rights.

The “unprecedented lawsuit” was “initially dismissed by most legal observers as hopeless,” The Independent says, “but in 2016 a federal judge, Ann Aiken, stunned the government by refusing its attempt to end the case”.

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Ann Carlson, a professor of environmental law at UCLA, said this was a major development as no court had ever previously upheld the idea the government had a duty to provide its citizens with a safe and stable environment.

“It’d be massive, particularly if they won what they’re asking for, which is get the federal government out of the business of in any way subsidising fossil fuels and get them into the business of dramatically curtailing greenhouse gases in order to protect the children who are the plaintiffs in order to create a safe climate” she says.

Both Barack Obama and Donald Trump have tried, and failed, to get the case thrown out.

Last year, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favour of the 21 young plaintiffs, meaning oral arguments are expected to commence at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in early June.

On Sunday, one of the plaintiffs appeared on the influential US news programme, 60 Minutes, “gaining national recognition” reports 13 KVAL, a radio station from Eugene, Oregon where several of the children are from.

Kelsey Juliana, now a student at the University of Oregon, told the CBS News programme: “This case is everything. This is the climate case. We have everything to lose if we don’t act on climate change right now.”

The case is just one of more than a dozen climate change lawsuits underway in the US right now. Besides suing the government, several counties and cities are seeking damages from coal, oil, and gas companies for contributing to climate change.

“Legal experts say that these lawsuits are long shots and test the limits of what existing jurisprudence covers,” says Vox, “but if they succeed, they could set critical precedents, lead to billion-dollar payouts, and radically reshape the effort to limit global warming.”

“Perhaps the biggest question at stake, observers say, is whether judges can — and should — set climate policy,” writes Julia Rosen in Science Mag.

The government has argued climate policy is best tackled by Congress and the White House, but in her 2016 decision, Judge Aitkin appeared to side with the young plaintiffs, arguing: “Federal courts too often have been cautious and overly deferential in the arena of environmental law, and the world has suffered for it.”

“But even if the trial is halted, it has already forced the Trump administration to give ground on climate change,” says Rosen.

The case has required "the administration to make numerous admissions,” says Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, “and be much more specific in its scientific claims than it has had to be before.”

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