A Groundbreaking Class Action on Climate Change

December 26, 2016

climate change

 

Every now and then I stumble upon a lawsuit that is like nothing I’ve ever seen before.

The latest example is a class action pending in Oregon under the caption Juliana v. United States (D. Oregon, 15-cv-1517). The Plaintiffs — a group of young people between the ages of eight and eighteen, along with a non-profit agency specializing in environmental advocacy — sued various federal officials (among others), arguing that the United States government should be liable for failing to address climate change. In their Complaint, the Plaintiffs alleged that the government’s failure to act was (1) a violation of the Plaintiffs’ substantive due process right to live in an ecosystem that can sustain human life, and (2) a breach of the government’s duty as public trustee over the environment.

The Defendants filed a Motion to Dismiss, arguing that the lawsuit should be dismissed because it raised political questions that were not properly resolved in the courts, arguing that the Plaintiffs should be lobbying for policy change in the Legislative Branch or in the Executive Branch. The Defendants also argued that that the Plaintiffs lacked standing to challenge a broad failure to protect the planet.

That Motion failed. In two opinions, the District Court found that the matter belonged in Court and found that these Plaintiffs could properly bring these claims. In both opinions, the Court treated this as the most important litigation pending on any environmental issue, maybe ever. Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin called the case “a relatively unprecedented lawsuit that, in essence, seeks relief from government action and inaction that allegedly results in carbon pollution of the atmosphere, climate destabilization, and ocean acidification. The government action and inaction allegedly threatens catastrophic consequences which have already began and will progressively worsen in the near future.”[1] Judge Ann Aiken said simply, “This is no ordinary lawsuit,” noting that the Plaintiffs were alleging a “direct causal line” between the Defendants’ policy choices and “floods, food shortages, destruction of property, species extinction, and a host of other harms.”[2]

Now that the case has survived the Motion-to-Dismiss stage, the Plaintiffs’ claims will proceed into discovery. Going forward, the lawsuit will focus on whether there is proof that the Defendants are responsible for long-term damage to the planet from greenhouse gas emissions. Judge Aiken has scheduled a Status Conference for February 7th, when she will likely set a schedule for the proceedings.

Stay tuned. This litigation may become even more newsworthy as it goes along.

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  1. Juliana v. United States, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 52940, at *3-*4 (D. Or. April 8, 2016).
  2. Juliana v. United States, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 156014 at *6-*8 (D. Or. November 10, 2016).

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