An Oregon judge recently ruled that a lawsuit can go forward that had been brought by a group of young people. The suit alleges that President Barack Obama and federal government violated the constitutional rights of the next generation by allowing pollution that allegedly caused climate change. Federal District Court Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin ruled against motions brought by the federal government and fossil fuel companies to dismiss the case. The judge thus decided in favor of plaintiffs that included Dr. James Hanse and 21 others on April 8. The plaintiffs ranged in age from 8 to 19 years.
 
The suit was filed in 2015 by Our Children’s Trust, an advocacy group based in Oregon. Along with allied organizations, the group has filed lawsuits and petitions in all fifty states. They allege that the federal government has withheld information that the use of fossil fuels causes global warming and climate change.
 
The Court’s decision also upheld the youth Plaintiffs’ claims in the Fifth and Ninth Amendments “by denying them protections afforded to previous generations and by favoring the short-term economic interests of certain citizens.”
 
“If the allegations in the complaint are to be believed, the failure to regulate the emissions has resulted in a danger of constitutional proportions to the public health,” Judge Coffin wrote, calling the suit “unprecedented.”
 
Based on the doctrine of public trust, which guided the 1970s Clean Water Act, governments must protect commonly held waterways and the seashore for public use. The plaintiffs in this case allege that the climate and atmosphere must be likewise protected.
 
“This will be the trial of the century that will determine if we have a right to a livable future, or if corporate power will continue to deny our rights for the sake of their own wealth,” said 19-year-old plaintiff Kelsey Juliana in a statement. Trade groups associated with the fuel industry said the “extraordinary” case is a “direct, substantial threat to [their] businesses.” They were granted defendant status in January of this year.
 
Judge Coffin wrote in his decision, “The debate about climate change and its impact has been before various political bodies for some time now. Plaintiffs give this debate justiciability by asserting harms that befall or will befall them personally and to a greater extent than older segments of society. It may be that eventually the alleged harms, assuming the correctness of plaintiffs’ analysis of the impacts of global climate change, will befall all of us. But the intractability of the debates before Congress and state legislatures and the alleged valuing of short-term economic interest despite the cost to human life, necessitates a need for the courts to evaluate the constitutional parameters of the action or inaction taken by the government. This is especially true when such harms have an alleged disparate impact on a discrete class of society.”
 
The plaintiffs’ attorney Philip Gregory noted that “This decision is one of the most significant in our nation’s history. The Court upheld our claims that the federal government intensified the danger to our plaintiffs’ lives, liberty and property. Judge Coffin decided our Complaint will move forward and put climate science squarely in front of the federal courts. The next step is for the Court to order our government to cease jeopardizing the climate system for present and future generations.”
 
Judge Coffin wrote: “The debate about climate change and its impact has been before various political bodies for some time now. Plaintiffs give this debate justiciability by asserting harms that befall or will befall them personally and to a greater extent than older segments of society. It may be that eventually the alleged harms, assuming the correctness of plaintiffs’ analysis of the impacts of global climate change, will befall all of us. But the intractability of the debates before Congress and state legislatures and the alleged valuing of short-term economic interest despite the cost to human life, necessitates a need for the courts to evaluate the constitutional parameters of the action or inaction taken by the government. This is especially true when such harms have an alleged disparate impact on a discrete class of society.”

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Spero News writer Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

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