In a courtroom packed with environmental activists, federal judges wrestled Tuesday over whether climate change violates the rights of young people who have sued the U.S. government over the use of fossil fuels.
A U.S. Justice Department lawyer said the young people wrongly want the courts to direct energy policy, instead of government officials. Jeffrey Clark, an assistant attorney general, told three judges from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that the lawsuit is “a direct attack on the separation of powers.”
An attorney for the young people countered that government action that increases global warming puts “children in harm’s way” and urged the judges to let the lawsuit move forward.
“The government devalues the lives of these young children when making energy policy,” said Julia Olson, chief legal counsel for Our Children’s Trust.
The lawsuit asks the courts to declare federal energy policies unconstitutional. The Obama and Trump administrations have tried to get it dismissed since it was filed in Oregon in 2015.
“It’s just really disappointing to see the lengths that they go to — to not only not let us get the remedy that we’re seeking, but not even let us have the chance to prove our facts or present our case at trial,” said Nathan Baring, a 19-year-old from Fairbanks, Alaska, who joined the lawsuit when he was 15.
As the case drags on, sea ice that protects coastal Alaska communities from fierce storms is forming later in the year, leaving those villages vulnerable, he said.
The young people argue that government officials have known for more than 50 years that carbon pollution from fossil fuels causes climate change and that policies promoting oil and gas deprive them of their constitutional rights to life, liberty and property.
Lawyers for President Donald Trump’s administration say the young people didn’t find any “historical basis for a fundamental right to a stable climate system or any other constitutional right related to the environment.”
The lawsuit says the young are more vulnerable to serious effects from climate change in the future. The American Academy of Pediatrics, 14 other health organizations and nearly 80 scientists and physicians agreed in a brief filed with the appeals court.
They pointed out that the World Health Organization estimates that 88% of the global health burden of climate change falls on children younger than 5.
The lawsuit wants the U.S. District Court in Eugene, where the lawsuit was filed, to declare that the U.S. government is violating the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights by substantially causing or contributing to a dangerous concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
If the 9th Circuit judges decide the lawsuit can move forward, it would go before the federal court in Eugene. The appeals court judges heard arguments Tuesday but were not expected to rule right away.
The case has become a focal point for many youth activists, and the courtroom in Portland was packed. Baring said he and his co-plaintiffs have matured as the case has wound through the legal system.
“I never anticipated how much I was going to grow up, or how much the group was going to grow up,” he said.
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