Every morning you unravel yourself from the bedsheets and listen to your daily dosage of news. And it no longer feels like a kick to the chest when you hear the reports detailing the minuta of another Trump lawsuit...Because, what's new? But amongst the dissonance of sexual allegations, global companies, and world leaders that are already out for Trump's hide, you wouldn't expect a pint-sized version is after a piece of him too.
When you get over the absurdity of the title, it becomes a much more plausible platform. It becomes the people fighting for their future. These people, 21 youth plaintiffs from around the country, ranging in ages from 10 to 21. Point blank, it may seem unusual for a ten-year-old to be lobbying for changes in the trump administration. But the world today has recently seen a shift in politics. One that hasn't boded well for officials elected by an overwhelmingly older population. These changes are being expressed in a multitude of ways, Oxford dictionary’s word of 2017 being Youthquake. A word that means, “A significant cultural, political, or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people”. Countries around the world have been experiencing the massive tremors that young voices have been making. And Youthquake bleeds into this judicial case.
Plaintiffs in Juliana v. U.S. are a group of aspiring scientists and climate activists on the rise. Many of whom have been up close and personal with the raging force that is climate change. One of the young plaintiffs lost their house in Louisiana to flooding. Another worries that her home, the Marshall Islands, will be covered by rising oceans. Their engagement in the case is brought on by their intimate experiences with mother nature’s increasingly destructive patterns. And as hundreds of thousands of reports will tell you, global warming is only going to get worse. Plaintiff Jacob Lebel said in an interview "Years from now, Trump and his cabinet—they won’t be the ones dealing with starvation and refugees and resource wars and all that stuff. We’re the ones who are gonna be dealing with that. As young people, we think about that every single day."
This case is just beginning to spark interest, in part because of natural disasters such as hurricanes Irma, Harvey, and Maria. But the youth plaintiffs filed their constitutional climate lawsuit, called Juliana v. U.S., in the U.S. District Court in 2015. The lawsuit was originally filed against the Obama administration, during this time the lawsuit gained little traction. But then, crashing onto the stage came the highly controversial, trump administration. One of their first defining actions brought harsh changes to the EPA, undoing previous climate policy initiatives. Seeing the opportunity, the youth plaintiffs switched to suing the trump administration. The government has been delaying and delaying and delaying the Juliana v. U.S. case from going to trial. Executing a series of procedural maneuvers that challenge the dexterity of neo from The Matrix.Last year the district judge denied the government's motion to dismiss the case. However, Their long uphill battle isn't over yet. The Justice Department has asked for a writ of mandamus. Basically, instead of appealing directly, the opposition is trying to sue the judge in hopes they will correct an earlier mistake. Or just another way of slowing the case down to monolithic speeds.
A three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit heard the oral arguments last month on Dec 11. If they decide to move forward, the government will have to offer up documents that may reveal they have been making decisions that have accelerated climate change while knowing for decades the potential destruction.
Representing the Trump administration and the U.S. government, was Eric Grant, who argued that the case be dismissed. Utilizing the word “unprecedented” more times than can be counted.
Julia Olson stood her ground during a particularly long questioning, arguing that Children are especially vulnerable to climate change physically, and economically. After judges expressed their doubtfulness, Julia Olson returned the response with composed confidence,“They Will live far longer than you,” she breathed out. The panel of judges stayed silent for a moment afterward, and then resumed their line of questioning. Both sides continued to clarify arguments and exploit the word “unprecedented” in such terrifyingly large quantities, that at points, it lost its meaning entirely. This case, at the risk of echoing Eric Grant, is unprecedented. In Many situations, attorneys base their arguments upon the outcomes of previous cases, but as the lawyers point out, there has never been a case like it.
A ruling from the Ninth Circuit panel is expected in the next few weeks or possibly months. If the judges decide to continue on with the case, the trial date will likely get pushed back.
But what happens if Juliana v. U.S. does get passed on to the trial they desperately want, and the Trump administration adamantly doesn't want? How would they argue it? Julia Olsen asserts the government's damaging climate decisions have violated the constitutional rights of an entire generation. Excluding them from such inalienable rights as to life, liberty, and property. But this argument will have no efficacy without a good, solid piece of litigation to back them up. Which of course, they have: the legal theory they present as their argumentative backbone is as old as America itself. It's called Atmospheric trust litigation, heavily associated with the public trust doctrine. It demands the government maintain public property such as seas, rivers, coastline, etc. How would Eric Grant argue it? The federal government has argued that the huge discovery period required by the case would be too much work for them to handle. Eric Grant also argued that the plaintiffs lack the ability to prove they would/ are suffering from a specific law or action.
What does this case mean for the future? And what do actual climate lawyers think of it? These were the questions we were curious about when WTP was fortunate enough to speak with Nada Culver, who works for the Wilderness Society.
With static running heavy on the line, we began to ask. "What do you find most interesting about the case?” Immediately Culver jumps in, despite the loud whirring noise, “The idea we can use the constitution to force the president to deal with climate change, is extraordinary.” She continues on the nuances of cases like these. How uncommon they were, and how there are more and more surfacing in the United States. In her home state of Colorado, lawsuit Youth V. Colorado Oil and gas was also fought and miraculously won, by teens. She believes when making arguments for a future world, it’s a much more consequential fight if kids and young adults are thrown into the mix. Nevertheless, when we asked if she was at all surprised upon hearing about the case, Culver said, quite frankly, “Yes. A bunch of kids suing the government over climate change, it's incredible.” She went on passionately about the strong message Juliana v. U.S. is sending, the relevance of climate change and how it will affect our future generations. And upon inquiring about the 21 youth plaintiff’s chances of winning, she sighs and says, “ I don't know, but just the fact they can continue is encouraging.” As the interview progresses we get onto the subject of the Trump administration. This administration has taken many steps to avoid climate change, even taking the initiative of scrubbing documents with the words “climate change” in them. And with the rapid reforms they've made to the EPA, its set itself up as willing to dismiss evidence and ignore the subject altogether. So we ask her, “Even if they don't win, How would you like to see Juliana v. U.S. change America?” She stays silent for a moment, “ I would like it to remind people...that our government has the obligation to rule for everyone, not just their party or friends. If nothing else, I want it to keep climate change front and center. There's alot of personal issues that get lost in the climate change debate. And one of the best things this case has already done, is show that the devastating effects of global warming is happening to real kids." And with that our conversation finishes.
As casual as our interview was, it was all surrounding the fact we live in a country that feels, "the government could actually render the climate incapable of sustaining human life without violating the Constitution. It’s a claim as chilling as it is extraordinary, and it should be rejected.” said Carroll Muffett to Thinkprogress, currently president of the Center for International Environmental Law. While her statement may be scary, its certainly true. Mother Nature is strong, if we’re not careful she'll shake us off like fleas.