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Courtrooms usually aren’t jovial places, but with 21 youth plaintiffs and two busloads of supporting junior high-school students in tow, the air in the U.S. District Courthouse here on Wednesday felt more field trip than federal court.

Youth plaintiff Isaac Vergun (13) poses outside the US District Courthouse in Eugene, OR. Photo credit: Clayton Aldern / Grist
Youth plaintiff Isaac Vergun (13) poses outside the U.S. District Courthouse in Eugene, Oregon. Photo credit: Clayton Aldern / Grist

The occasion for the youthful energy was a hearing on a complaint filed on behalf of the plaintiffs, aged 8 – 19, by Oregon nonprofit Our Children’s Trust. The kids’ lawyers assert that their clients and the younger generation as a whole, have been deprived of key rights by their own government. By failing to act on climate change, they argue, the U.S. government—including President Obama and a baker’s dozen federal agencies—has valued its own generation more than future generations, who will bear a greater burden with respect to the climate crisis.

The Justice Department filed a motion to dismiss the complaint and Wednesday’s hearing had a federal judge considering that motion. The youth plaintiffs’ counsel sparred with government lawyers as well as attorneys representing fossil fuel interests. This kind of case might sound, well, juvenile, but trade groups with ties to the oil and gas lobby—the American Petroleum Institute, the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers and the National Association of Manufacturers—were concerned enough about it that they joined as co-defendants in November of last year. Now, the Oregon U.S. District Court will decide whether or not the complaint will proceed to trial.

Xiuhtezcatl Tonatiuh Martinez, a 15-year-old indigenous activist and a plaintiff on the case, summed up the kids’ perspective at a press conference after the hearing. “We are valuing our futures over profits,” he said. “We are valuing this planet over corporate greed.”

Xiuhtezcatl Tonatiuh Martinez (15) stands in front of his fellow plaintiffs and addresses the press. Photo credit: Clayton Aldern / Grist
Xiuhtezcatl Tonatiuh Martinez (15) stands in front of his fellow plaintiffs and addresses the press. Photo credit: Clayton Aldern / Grist

This isn’t the first time Our Children’s Trust has brought forth a youth climate lawsuit. Indeed, the group has at one time or another filed suit in all 50 states and currently has cases pending in five states. Back in November, in a case brought by a coalition of Seattle teenagers, a Washington judge ruled that the state was constitutionally obligated to protect its natural resources “for the common benefit of the people of the State”—a notable win for the young plaintiffs—but she did not go so far as to rule that the state’s carbon emissions-limiting standards in question needed to adhere to the “best available science.” A 2011 suit, which the youth plaintiffs ended up losing, also targeted the federal government for failing to keep the atmosphere safe for future generations. It perhaps goes without saying that these types of complaints are incredible long shots.

Levi Draheim (left, 8), Avery McRae (10) and Hazel Van Ummerson (11) respond to questions at a press conference after their hearing in Eugene, Oregon. Photo credit: Clayton Aldern / Grist
Levi Draheim (left, 8), Avery McRae (10) and Hazel Van Ummerson (11) respond to questions at a press conference after their hearing in Eugene, Oregon. Photo credit: Clayton Aldern / Grist

Julia Olson, a lawyer with Wild Earth Advocates and Our Children’s Trust who argued the plaintiffs’ case on Wednesday, is optimistic about the outcome of this complaint, though. “I believe in our Constitution and I think it can work to address even the most systemic, intractable problem of our generation,” she told me.

The complaint alleges violation of the kids’ Fifth Amendment rights to due process and equal protection. By failing to act on climate change, it argues, the government discriminates against youth as a class. Without access to a healthy climate, they’re deprived of their fundamental rights to life, liberty and property.

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