Appeals Court Ordered the Dismissal of a Landmark Youth Climate Court Case

Earlier this week, a landmark youth climate court case may have been dealt a fatal blow. 

Originally filed in 2015, Juliana v. United States was brought before a district court in Oregon by a group of plaintiffs—between the ages 8 and 19, at the time—who alleged that the federal government has knowingly violated their constitutional rights by promoting the export and production of fossil fuels that contribute to climate change.   

Now almost nine years older, these individuals may never see their day in court. On Wednesday, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a lower court judge to dismiss the lawsuit, finding that the U.S. judiciary lacked the power to provide the remedies sought by the plaintiffs. 

Spanning several presidential terms, the lawsuit has been challenged by the Obama, Trump and Biden administrations, all of which have supported dismissal of the case. As environmental activists rebuke the most recent dismissal, some experts say that the decision could hurt President Biden’s relationship with youth climate voters, which is already on the rocks, according to a wide body of polling. 

Today, we are headed to court and the public opinion polls to explore where climate litigation stands in the U.S., and how the presidential candidates are faring as the election quickly approaches. 

Juliana v. United States: When this case was filed, the group of youth activists requested several actions from the federal government, including implementation of “an enforceable national remedial plan to phase out fossil fuel emissions” and a prompt lowering of greenhouse gas emissions. 

The suit is based on the public trust doctrine, a legal concept establishing that certain environmental resources such as land and water are maintained and managed by the government for its citizens. Several environmental litigators have used this approach in the past, though a 2021 paper found that it has been rather ineffective at suing for climate change. 

In 2020, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals “reluctantly” dismissed the Juliana case, stating that the issues plaintiffs raised on climate change were political and not a decision for the courts. However, the plaintiffs were able to revive the case when a U.S. district judge allowed them to file a revised and narrower version of their complaint. This time, though, the court of appeals left no opening to amend the complaint in sending the case back down to the district court for dismissal, reports Bloomberg Law

The decision comes nearly a year after a judge in Montana ruled in favor of a group of young people who sued the state for its failure to consider climate change when approving fossil fuel projects, which galvanized members of the youth climate movement to pursue a new wave of climate litigation in their own states. The Juliana case, by contrast, targeted a host of federal offices—including the Department of the Interior and the Department of Justice, which say that the plaintiffs brought broad claims against them that a court cannot resolve. 

Our Children’s Trust, the nonprofit law firm that has represented the youth plaintiffs in both cases, told Oregon Public Broadcasting that the group was considering asking the circuit to rehear their case in front of a larger panel of judges. 

“This is a tragic and unjust ruling, but it is not over,” Julia Olson, an attorney with Our Children’s Trust, said in a statement. “President Biden can still make this right by coming to the settlement table.”

Inside Scoop: Last month, a group of Swiss women won a climate case in Europe’s top human rights court against Switzerland for violating their rights by not protecting them from the health impacts of climate change, which I covered in an April newsletter. With such stark differences between these trials, I asked my colleague Katie Surma, who writes about international environmental law and justice, about how U.S. climate litigation differs from some of the other countries around the world.

Climate litigation has exploded around the world in recent years with thousands of cases filed on a range of related issues, including attempts to hold governments and polluters accountable and to spur more ambitious emission cuts.

While the United States has been home to about 70 percent of those cases, that litigiousness (so far) hasn’t translated into systemic shifts in climate governance here. Abroad, and primarily in European countries, courts have begun playing a much more active role. Along with the Swiss case mentioned, another example of this is in the case Commune de Grande-Synthe v. France, in which the French government was ordered in 2021 to meet its climate commitments. A major theme in a lot of climate cases abroad is an emphasis on the human rights obligations of governments.

Comparing U.S. and other countries’ climate litigation, legal scholars attribute the difference in strategies and outcomes to a range of factors, including the peculiarities of each country’s legal system and the unique social and cultural contexts of nations. Some U.S. officials and states have been notorious outliers in denying the science of climate change while most other countries have long had broad consensus about the need to address it.

The U.S. has the world’s oldest constitution, and unlike some other countries and individual U.S. states, there is no enumerated recognition of a human right to a clean environment in that 1787 document or its amendments. The U.S. has also long taken a conservative stance on human rights—supporting civil and political rights but not legally recognizing economic, social and cultural rights. 

Biden and Youth Climate Voters: Over the past few years, the Biden administration has taken  several key actions on climate change. They include President Joe Biden’s signature on the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), marking the largest-ever investment in clean energy and climate action. 

However, many youth activists believe that the president has underdelivered on his climate promises, particularly by failing to take stronger measures against the oil and gas industry. Youth support for Biden could take another hit following his administration’s opposition to Juliana and the ninth circuit’s rejection of the case, E&E News reports.  

A large swath of climate-conscious young voters are also dissatisfied with Biden’s approach regarding the Israel-Hamas war. These, among other factors, have led to a drop-off in youth support for Biden in the runup to the presidential election, according to a variety of polls. 

In some cases, voter dissatisfaction on Biden’s climate record may be a result of communication issues. A 2023 poll by Yale University found that 41 percent of the people surveyed said they knew “nothing at all” about the Inflation Reduction Act. However, progressive advocacy nonprofit NextGen America released new polling on Tuesday which found that over two-thirds of young voters in key swing states—including Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Virginia—have heard of the IRA, and views of it are largely positive. 

The NextGen polling also revealed one of the biggest threats to both Democratic and Republican candidates’ presidential bids: third parties. Out of the young voters surveyed, 20 percent said that they were opting for someone other than Biden or Donald Trump in the election, though polling indicates that voters may be willing to change their minds if they are educated on some of the Biden administration’s actions on climate, student debt and gun safety, according to NextGen. 

If you want to dive in deeper, The New York Times recently interviewed several young voters about their thoughts on the upcoming election, and why some of them are planning to abstain entirely from voting this year. 

More Top Climate News

South Asia is currently experiencing one of its worst heat waves in history, impacting hundreds of millions of people across India, Bangladesh, Thailand and the rest of the region. The sweltering temperatures—which hit 114 degrees Fahrenheit in some areas of India—have triggered a massive uptick in heat-related illnesses and deaths, along with forcing school closures and disrupting grid infrastructure.

The heat also caused a mass fish die-off in Vietnam’s Dong Nai province, where fishermen are currently wading through the water to collect the hundreds of thousands of fish carcasses, CNN reports. Scientists say that the scorching weather has been exacerbated by unusually warm El Niño ocean temperatures, as well as climate change. 

Meanwhile, tech company Microsoft announced on Wednesday the “biggest corporate clean-energy purchase agreement ever,” Simon Casey and Josh Saul write for Bloomberg

The company is set to support 10.5 renewable gigawatts of power globally to help Microsoft maintain its climate commitments while simultaneously ramping up its AI systems, which require massive amounts of energy for computation and data storage. 

In California, the Biden administration on Thursday announced the expansion of two national monuments across nearly 120,000 acres of land, which carry significance for tribal nations and Indigenous peoples in the region, reports the Los Angeles Times. The expansion will bolster protection in the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument north of Los Angeles and Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument, which were originally created by President Barack Obama under the Antiquities Act. 

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