A federal appeals court has thrown out the landmark climate change lawsuit brought on behalf of young people against the federal government.
While the young plaintiffs “have made a compelling case that action is needed,” wrote Judge Andrew D. Hurwitz in a 32-page opinion, climate change is not an issue for the courts. “Reluctantly, we conclude that such relief is beyond our constitutional power. Rather, the plaintiffs’ impressive case for redress must be presented to the political branches of government.”
The two members in the majority of the three-judge panel thus agreed with the Trump administration that the issues brought up in the case, Juliana v. United States did not belong before the courts.
The appeals court decision reverses an earlier ruling by a district court judge, Ann Aiken, who would have let the case go forward. Instead, the appeals court reversed her decision with instructions to the lower court to dismiss the case.
In a lengthy and impassioned dissent, Judge Josephine L. Staton wrote that “the government accepts as fact that the United States has reached a tipping point crying out for a concerted response — yet presses ahead toward calamity. It is as if an asteroid were barreling toward Earth and the government decided to shut down our only defenses.”
While “no case can single-handedly prevent the catastrophic effects of climate change predicted by the government and scientists,” she wrote, “a federal court need not manage all of the delicate foreign relations and regulatory minutiae implicated by climate change to offer real relief.”
Julia Olson, an environmental lawyer with the group Our Children’s Trust, originally filed the federal suit in 2015 against the Obama administration, demanding that the government drop policies that encouraged fossil fuel use and faster action to curb climate change from a president already seen as friendly to environmental interests.
Working under a legal principle known as the public trust doctrine, which can be used to compel the government to preserve natural resources for public use, the initial complaint stated that government officials had “willfully ignored” the dangers of burning fossil fuels.
Michael B. Gerrard, the director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, called the decision “a disappointment but not a surprise.” He said that “Many U.S. judges have vigorously enforced the environmental laws written by Congress but won’t go beyond that.”
“They want to leave the key decisions to the ballot box,” he said. “So for now, all three branches of the federal government are sitting on their hands as the planet burns.”