Oregon teens sue state: Can local government be held accountable for climate change?

Two teenage plaintiffs take on the State of Oregon raising the legal question: Does the state bear responsibility for addressing climate change? 

Don Ryan/AP
Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, middle, is sworn in for an unprecedented fourth term by Senior Judge Paul J. De Muniz in Salem, Ore., Monday, Jan. 12, 2015. He is being sued by Kelsey Juliana, 18, and Olivia Chernaik, 14, for not working fast enough to address climate control.

Three years ago, Eugene, Ore., teenagers Kelsey Juliana and Olivia Chernaik sued Gov. John Kitzhaber for failing to protect future generations from the effects of climate change.

The case was initially dismissed by the Lane County Circuit Court in 2012. But the Oregon Court of Appeals has ordered the lower court to address the issue and decide whether the atmosphere is considered a public trust. The trial is scheduled for March 13.

"This could be a landmark decision on the question: Does government, as trustee over our essential natural resources, have to protect [the atmosphere] from carbon pollution and the impacts of climate disruption?" said Julia Olson, executive director of the nonprofit Our Children's Trust, and originator of the youth-led lawsuit.

Ms. Juliana (now 18) and Ms. Chernaik (now 14) claim that Oregon’s state government is not moving fast enough to address the causes of climate change, thereby violating the public trust doctrine. The state, by its own admission, has failed to meet carbon emission reduction goals that were established eight years ago in House Bill 3543. The teens argue that the State of Oregon has a fiduciary obligation to manage natural resources – including the atmosphere – as public trust assets, and to also protect these resources from greenhouse-gas emissions and the adverse effects of climate change. They hope the court agrees.

“I think it makes perfect sense,” Juliana said in an interview with Bill Moyers. “We’re protecting a forest here, the ocean here, this here. Okay, well, save yourself from time. The atmosphere is just the all-encompassing resource that everything depends on, every life force. So to kind of not hold that in protection, to let that be exploited and polluted, it goes against our rights. And it’s not just.”

Juliana embraces a history of environmental activism, which began when she attended a rally with her parents when she was only a few months old. She most recently spent the fall walking cross-country in the Great March for Climate Action, where she joined other activists in a march from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. to spread awareness of climate change. She is now a freshman at Warren Wilson College in N.C..

Her strong stand, especially as a youth, has gained a lot of public support. Kitty Piercy, mayor of Eugene, Ore., supports the local teens and their national and international counterparts who are taking steps to ensure a better future for their generation.

"They have a right to be concerned. Their future is in question," Ms. Piercy told HuffPost in an interview. "We at all levels of government have an obligation to protect our children to ensure their survival and the survival of generations to come."

A recent study showed that 2014 was the hottest year on record, surpassing previous years and leaving scientists wondering if 2015 will be even hotter. James Hansen, who is often considered the world’s leading climate scientist, also supports the teens mission to make climate change a legal matter. However, with the time it may take for such a mission to become reality, the climate will continue to respond to carbon emission.

“Eventually the youth will win as the situation becomes clearer, but it is a dangerous situation, because by the time the climate change becomes obvious it is hard to prevent much larger change in the next several decades,” Mr. Hansen said.

Juliana and Chernaik started work on this suit when they were 14 and 11, respectively. But they're not working alone. Our Children Trust is a nonprofit that supports youth in strategic atmospheric trust litigation, and aims to hold the “ruling generation” accountable for future generations.

When the case was initially brought to Lane County Circuit Court, Judge Karsten Rasmussen dismissed it in April 2012.  Rasmussen said the matter was a political question and the court had no authority to order state officials to create a plan to reduce greenhouse emissions, reported WilliametteLive.com. Not everyone is on board with the lawsuit. 

In a Huffington Post article, some commenters say reports of climate change are exaggerated. And Paul J. Chamberlain pointed out the small effect Oregon has on the rest of the world: "The entire state of Oregon produces 0.01 Percent of the total human produced co2. There is nothing the Governor of Oregon can do that will make any significant difference in the climate. This lawsuit is frivolous and a waste of court time and taxpayer money." Peter Brunner questioned whether the case even addresses the real problem:

"While I applaud them for wanting to do something they feel is right, they haven't thought out what the real problem is. Climate Change isn't the problem it's a symptom of the problem. Taking government to the courts isn't going to do much besides raise awareness about Climate Change for some people. Most people will just go about their business as usual. Most of these cases will be dismissed. The problem is more entrenched," Mr. Brunner said. "Unless the money is taken out of politics, nothing is going to really change."

Juliana says it is important for youth to take a stand and influence change. “You don’t have to call yourself an activist to act,” she said to interviewer Bill Moyer. “I think that’s so important that people my age really get [that] into their heads. As a younger person, I have everything to gain from taking action and everything to lose from not… It’s important that youth are the ones who are standing up because of the fact that we do have so much to lose.”

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