Appeals court tosses kids' climate change lawsuit

Appeals court tosses kids' climate change lawsuit
© Greg Nash

A federal appeals court on Friday tossed a climate change lawsuit brought by a group of children who sought a court order to force the U.S. government to phase out fossil fuel emissions.

A divided three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit said that while the lawsuit raised critical issues concerning the government’s promotion of fossil fuels, they were beyond the court’s power to resolve.

“Reluctantly, we conclude that such relief is beyond our constitutional power,” Judge Andrew Hurwitz wrote for the majority. “Rather, the plaintiffs’ impressive case for redress must be presented to the political branches of government.”

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Hurwitz’s opinion was joined by Judge Mary Murguia. Dissenting from the majority was Judge Josephine Staton, who usually presides over a federal trial court in California but was designated to the appellate case. All three judges were appointed by President Obama.  

The 21 children and their allies who first brought the suit in 2015 alleged that U.S. policy encouraging and subsidizing the use of fossil fuels had inflicted climate change-related injuries and imperiled their constitutional right to a “climate system capable of sustaining human life.” 

A federal district judge in Oregon decided in 2016 that the case could proceed to trial. Before that happened, the Trump administration asked the Supreme Court to halt proceedings, a request the justices denied in 2018.

While the 9th Circuit court’s majority ultimately ruled the kids lacked standing to sue, the panel did not dispute their central claim: that the government had a hand in the rising levels of carbon emissions, which has led to severe environmental damage.  

“The record leaves little basis for denying that climate change is occurring at an increasingly rapid pace ... and establishes that the government’s contribution to climate change is not simply a result of inaction,” the majority wrote. “Copious expert evidence establishes that this unprecedented rise stems from fossil fuel combustion and will wreak havoc on the Earth’s climate if unchecked.” 

In her dissent, Staton said the climate change issues raised in the suit were within the court’s authority to redress, and warned that “waiting is not an option.”

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“If plaintiffs’ fears, backed by the government’s own studies, prove true, history will not judge us kindly,” Staton wrote. “When the seas envelop our coastal cities, fires and droughts haunt our interiors, and storms ravage everything between, those remaining will ask: Why did so many do so little?”

A lawyer for the children said the group intended to appeal the decision to a panel of the full circuit.

“The Juliana case is far from over. The Youth Plaintiffs will be asking the full court of the Ninth Circuit to review this decision and its catastrophic implications for our constitutional democracy," said Julia Olson, executive director and chief legal counsel for Our Children’s Trust, in a statement.

"The Court recognized that climate change is exponentially increasing and that the federal government has long known that its actions substantially contribute to the climate crisis," Olson added.

Updated at 4:38 p.m.