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Landmark Cases On Climate Change Have Ties To Eugene

As Oregonians swelter in the heat and drought, landmark decisions on climate change came down from courts in the U.S. and Europe just hours apart. 

Here in the U.S., Oregon-based Our Children’s Trust is celebrating a June 23 decision in Washington state’s King County Superior Court on a climate case against the state brought by eight youth. Meanwhile, the Dutch Urgenda Foundation and 900 co-plaintiffs won a climate case on June 24 that forces the government of the Netherlands to adopt more stringent climate policies. 

Both cases could have implications for future court cases aimed at halting climate change.

Our Children’s Trust has worked collaboratively with the attorneys in the Dutch case since 2011, Julia Olson of Our Children’s Trust says. She says while emailing with the partners they noted the irony of both landmark climate rulings coming down within hours of one another.

In the Dutch case, the nonprofit Urgenda (urgent + agenda), together with hundreds of citizens who joined in a “crowd pleading,” filed a case against the Dutch government in 2012 for not taking sufficient measures to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. Urgenda says it is the first case in Europe “in which citizens attempt to hold a state responsible for its potentially devastating inaction.” 

The group says that it is also the “first case in the world in which human rights are used as a legal basis to protect citizens against climate change.”

According to a press release from the district court in The Hague, the Dutch government has to take more action to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions in the Netherlands. It also must ensure that emissions in the year 2020 will be at least 25 percent lower than those in 1990. Previously its goal was 17 percent, “which is below the norm of 25 percent to 40 percent for developed countries deemed necessary in climate science and international climate policy,” the court says.

Urgenda says that with this verdict, more people can start their own climate cases. Currently there is a similar case in Belgium, and people in Norway are preparing one as well. According to Urgenda, “The science is crystal clear: We need to prevent the Earth’s temperature from rising more than 2 degrees. Currently, the Earth is headed for a temperature rise of 4, or even 6, degrees Celsius, which will mean an unlivable planet.”

Meanwhile in the U.S., young climate activists in Washington filed a case — similar to legislation filed in Oregon — grounded in the Public Trust Doctrine, which says “it is the duty of the government to protect the natural resources that are essential for our collective survival and prosperity.”

Andrea Rodgers of the Eugene-based Western Environmental Law Center was the attorney for the youth petitioners in Zoe & Stella Foster v. Washington Department of Ecology. She says that this is the first time in the U.S. that “a court of law has ordered a state agency to consider the most current and best available climate science when deciding to regulate carbon dioxide emissions.”

Olson says the notice of appeal in the Oregon case will be filed in the coming weeks. The difference in Washington, Olson says, is that the state has a statute on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, while in Oregon the goals are “just aspirational” with no enforcement or mandate. 

Olson says that the court originally told the kids they had to petition the state’s Department of Ecology to set rules to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The young activists petitioned Ecology, and Olson says the “agency said, ‘No,’ even though they didn’t dispute the science.” She says, “We took that to court and challenged it.”

Judge Hollis Hill ordered Ecology to reconsider the petition the eight youth filed with the department and to report back to the court by July 8 regarding if they will consider the current climate science.

The judge’s opinion describes the youth petitioners as “frustrated by an historical lack of political will to respond adequately to the increasingly urgent and dire acceleration of global warming.”

To stabilize the climate and protect oceans from acidification, climate science says the Earth’s atmospheric carbon dioxide levels must be reduced from the current global annual mean concentration of 401 parts per million, to 350 ppm by 2100.

Olson says all eight youth were there when the judge told the agency it “actually needed to consider the science.” She says, “By July 8 they have to tell her whether they will do rulemaking based on the science or not. If they still don’t do their job, I think she will write a longer opinion on their one more chance to correct course.”

This story has been updated.