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Young People's Climate Suit Dismissed by Appeals Court

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Youth plaintiff Kelsey Juliana speaks during a 2017 press conference in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, flanked by co-plaintiffs in their climate suit against the federal government. (Robin Loznak)

A federal appeals court on Friday dismissed a lawsuit 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, potentially bringing an end to a long-running legal battle 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 emission. The case had bounced around the federal courts for five years and multiple trial dates were canceled.

The 2-1 vote for dismissal was a major blow for the climate activists, who have filed numerous similar cases in state and federal courts and currently have nine cases pending in state courts from Alaska to New Mexico.

It wasn’t immediately clear if any further legal avenues were open to the plaintiffs and their attorneys. Our Children’s Trust and Earth Guardians did not immediately respond to telephone messages seeking comment.

Erin Barnhart, a spokeswoman for Children’s Trust, said in an email that the group would release a statement later Friday.


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 electorate.

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.

“Rather, the record shows that many of the emissions causing climate change happened decades ago or come from foreign and non-governmental sources,” the opinion read, adding that experts who testified in the case said such results would require a “fundamental transformation” of the world’s energy system.

The youths, 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. Others mentioned physical ailments from pollution.

“These injuries are not simply ‘conjectural’ or ‘hypothetical;’ at least some of the plaintiffs have presented evidence that climate change is affecting them now in concrete ways and will continue to do so unless checked,” the majority wrote.

The sole dissenting justice, Josephine Stanton, 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,” Stanton wrote in her dissent.

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