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Youth Sue Over Climate In Landmark Case

Eleven youths from Oregon have joined with 10 other kids from across the country and with future generations of children to file a lawsuit that attorney Julia Olson says will challenge the U.S. government and ask the federal court system to make a decision as important as Brown v. Board of Education (racial equality) or Obergefell v. Hodges (marriage equality).

The youth working with the nonprofit Our Children’s Trust are seeking equal climate rights for children and for future generations of children and want a national plan for a swift phase-down of CO2 emissions. 

Locally, participants include Kelsey Juliana, who has been a plaintiff in previous climate suits, and nationally, former NASA climate scientist James Hansen, who is participating as the guardian of his 16-year-old grandchild and as the guardian of future generations, according to Olson.

Olson — who is the executive director of Our Children’s Trust as well as an attorney on the case, together with Eugene attorney Dan Galpern and a California law firm — says the case has several major components. The first is the argument that the federal government is violating due process rights — the right to life, liberty and property. Olson says, “The biggest culprit throughout history has been the U.S. government in terms of responsibility for causing climate change.” When the government is putting a person in a position of danger, Olson says, it has a duty to protect you and it has “knowingly for 50 years caused this problem” of the cumulative effects of fossil fuel activities on climate destabilization.

Next there is the issue of equal protection. The case argues that minor children who can’t vote should be treated as a “suspect class” — a group of people who have historically experienced discrimination. When it comes to kids, there is a strong argument that they are a suspect class in terms of climate change, Olson says. 

Finally the case involves the public trust doctrine arguing that if the government is causing harm to the climate system, it needs to be enjoined to stop harming it, Olson says. 

Another Oregon component of the case, which is being filed in the U.S. district court in Eugene, involves the proposed Jordan Cove natural gas export terminal. Under the Energy Policy Act of 1992, the government grants permits for the export of natural gas when it is going to a free trade country. Jordan Cove has one of those permits, Olson says, and the case links the permit to the due process issue and the public trust doctrine.

 “It’s hard to express how big this case is,” Olson says. “If we win on any part of this case, it will be landmark decision.” She adds, “It has enormous potential, and we have really incredible facts we have unearthed about the federal government and a solid legal argument.”

Rolling Stone recently mentioned the case in the Aug. 5 article, “The Point of No Return: Climate Change Nightmares Are Already Here,” and Olson says MSNBC came to Eugene this week to film a story on the case.