Court dismisses climate change lawsuit brought by 21 young Americans

Kelsey Juliana, of Eugene, Ore., greets supporters outside a federal courthouse in Portland on June 4, 2019. Juliana was a lead plaintiff in a climate change lawsuit that was dismissed on Friday.
(Andrew Selsky/Associated Press)

A federal appeals court Friday dismissed a lawsuit brought by 21 young people who claimed the U.S. government’s climate policies and reliance on fossil fuels harms them, jeopardizes their future and violates their constitutional rights.

The dismissal deals a potentially fatal blow to a long-running case that activists saw as an important front in the war against environmental degradation.

The Oregon-based youth advocacy group Our Children’s Trust filed the lawsuit in 2015 in Eugene on behalf of the youngsters. It sought an injunction ordering the government to implement a plan to phase out fossil fuel emissions and draw down atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions.

The case had bounced around the federal courts for five years and multiple trial dates were canceled.

The 2-1 vote for dismissal by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals was a serious setback for the climate activists, who vowed to ask the full 9th Circuit panel to review the ruling. Our Children’s Trust has filed numerous similar cases in state and federal courts and currently has nine cases pending in state courts from Alaska to New Mexico.


Friday’s ruling was less likely to impact those cases, experts said.

“This is a very serious blow to the case, perhaps a fatal blow,” said Jennifer Rushlow, an associate dean for environmental programs at Vermont Law School, who has been watching the case closely.

Growing up in Fairbanks, Alaska, Nathan Baring has seen the signs of a warming world all around him.

Our Children’s Trust said in a statement that although the justices ruled for dismissal, it was important to note that they also said in the opinion that the evidence showed climate change was real and caused by fossil fuels and that the young plaintiffs had suffered legitimate consequences from climate change.

The “case is far from over,” said Julia Olson, lead attorney for Our Children’s Trust. “The court recognized that climate change is exponentially increasing and that the federal government has long known that its actions substantially contribute to the climate crisis.”

Government attorneys repeatedly sought the case’s dismissal and succeeded in having the scope of the claims narrowed and some defendants dismissed during years of back-and-forth litigation.

On Friday, the court wrote that the youngsters made a compelling case that action is needed and agreed that climate change is undeniable, but said the proper venue for addressing the nation’s emissions policies and fossil fuel use is the U.S. Congress or the executive branch.

In addition, the justices wrote that ending the use of fossil fuels in the U.S. alone — which is what the plaintiffs sought — would not be enough to slow or stop climate change.

“That’s the heartbreaking thing about this opinion,” said Cara Horowitz, co-director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the UCLA School of Law. “The 9th Circuit recognizes that climate change is an existential threat … and agrees that the political branches have not done enough to address this problem in the past and are unlikely to do so in the future. But the court just feels it’s in a really difficult situation.”

The sole dissenting justice, Josephine Staton, wrote that “my colleagues throw up their hands.”

“No case can singlehandedly prevent the catastrophic effects of climate change predicted by the government and scientists ... and the mere fact that this suit cannot alone halt climate change does not mean that it presents no claim suitable for judicial resolution,” Staton wrote in her dissent.

The plaintiffs, who were between the ages of 8 and 18 when the lawsuit was filed in 2015, tied specific incidents that had affected their lives to climate change and U.S. government policies.

In one instance, a young woman said she was forced to leave her home on a Navajo reservation because of water scarcity, separating her from her relatives. Another — the youngest plaintiff — said storms driven by climate change have hurt his home, a barrier island off the Florida coast that’s just 13 feet above sea level. Still others cited health impacts, such as worsening asthma attacks from air pollution.

The plaintiffs come from all over the U.S., from Oregon to Louisiana to New York.