5 Things to Know About The Youth-Led Climate Lawsuit Against Trump

By Yessenia Funes Jun 09, 2017

The courts are increasingly becoming the place to shift the world’s course on climate change. And that’s true for the 21 youth plaintiffs who are challenging the U.S. federal government for its inaction on the manmade disaster.

They argue that the federal government is denying their constitutional right to life, liberty and property by ignoring climate change and, in effect, worsening it. Their case, Juliana et al. v United States et al., continues to move forward. Yesterday (June 8), a federal judge denied the defendants’ request for interlocutory appeal, a rare appeal that takes place before trial even ends.

Defendants, which include the Trump administration and fossil fuel industry groups like the American Petroleum Institute (API), filed this motion for appeal March 7. But this move is just a small piece of the lawsuit.

Here, five things to know as the case proceeds into pretrial and discovery in the fall.

The lawsuit was launched under the Obama administration.
Even though President Donald Trump’s name is listed on the current documents, former President Barack Obama’s originally was. The youth launched the lawsuit in 2015 when Obama was still in office.

On February 9, the plaintiffs substituted the former president’s name for Trump’s. They said, in a press release sent to Colorlines, that they are even more determined now to win in face of a president who denies climate change.

Ten of the youth are of color.
The children range in age: 9 to 20. But they also range in race, with 10 who are either Black or Indigenous. Their names include 17-year-old Victoria Barrett of White Plains, New York, and Journey Zephier, 16, of Kaua’i, Hawaii.

Most notably, perhaps, is Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, 16, an Indigenous climate activist who both writes and raps about climate change. Martinez is often invited to speak at Native-led events like the Washington, D.C. Native Nations Rise March earlier this year or the 2014 People’s Climate March in New York. He was also included in environmental news site Grist’s list of 50 notable “fixers” this year.

State-level litigation has already seen some success.
In Massachusetts in May 2016, a judge ruled in favor of four youth plaintiffs who had filed their own lawsuit against the state, Kain et al. v. Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). The court ordered the state to issue regulations on multiple sources of its greenhouse gas emissions.

By September, Gov. Charles Baker passed an executive order for the DEP to put into effect regulations to decrease greenhouse gas emissions by this coming August. He also required, by this order, that Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Matthew Beaton establish a “comprehensive energy plan.”

These successful youth worked with the same organization that is working with the 21 who are involved in the landmark federal lawsuit, Our Children’s Trust. The nonprofit supports young people around the globe in using the legal system to help solve climate change.

These types of cases are growing more common around the world.
A study from last month revealed that, within the past three years, the number of countries with climate lawsuits has tripled. The United States is No. 1 in how many cases (with three times the number as the rest of the world combined), but it isn’t the first to see a win.

As the document highlights, the Austrian Federal Administrative Court witnessed the first instance of a court ruling to overturn government agency approval of an infrastructure project due to climate change.

The United Nations Environment and the Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law published the study.

Industry defendants are trying to withdraw from the case.
Three fossil fuel industry defendants that joined the litigation by initially filing motions to intervene have now filed for withdrawal. They include the National Association of Manufacturers, the API and the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers.

Their motions were filed within days of each other in May. API wrote in its filing that it no longer sought “to pursue its right to participate as an intervenor in the district court proceedings at this time.” It goes on:

Beyond the Court’s authority to grant API’s request, allowing withdrawal at this time would not be disruptive to the proceedings in this case, and would in fact serve judicial economy and not prejudice any of the remaining parties. In addition to narrowing the contested issues— including issues presently not contested by the federal defendants—withdrawal of an intervenor will reduce the number of parties to this proceeding and, accordingly, reduce the amount of discovery, reduce discovery-related motions practice and avoid the possibility of duplicative discovery efforts and duplicative proceedings.

It is up to U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin to grant permission on whether the three parties can leave the case.