Levi Draheim is just 11 years old. Yet he and 20 other young people have sued the U.S. government. Their case centers on actions that foster climate change. For more than a century, human activities have been increasing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. That increase has triggered a huge host of effects globally, from changes in weather to ice melting at the poles.
Levi lives in Satellite Beach, Fla. He had to leave his home because of strong hurricanes. Heavy rains flooded the town’s streets. And he had trouble breathing during red tides. A red tide can develop when harmful ocean algae grow out of control.
Climate change is making these events more frequent or more severe. Levi and his family also have another climate-change-related problem. Sea level is rising. “If climate change worsens, the barrier island that I live on will be gone,” he explains.
The young people say the U.S. government allowed and continues to encourage the use of fossil fuels. Burning those fuels emits greenhouse gases, driving climate change. The youths want the government to rein in that pollution — now. And so they filed suit against the government in 2015.
The case has had multiple delays. The government initially asked the trial court to throw out the case. The court said no. The government complained to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. That court reviews federal court decisions from several western states. That court said the case could go ahead, and the Supreme Court agreed. Both sides did work to get ready for trial. Experts filed reports. Lawyers asked witnesses questions under oath. The government again tried to get the case thrown out without a trial. Again, the trial court said no. The Ninth Circuit refused to step in and stop a trial.
Finally, trial was set to start on October 29, 2018. But on October 19, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts told the trial court to hold up. The youths’ lawyers objected. On November 2, the Supreme Court finally agreed that the trial can go forward. Right now, there is no way to predict precisely when that will happen.
Threats to life, liberty and property
The U.S. government has known for decades that fossil-fuel emissions lead to climate change, says lawyer Phil Gregory. Based in Redwood, Calif., he’s one of the lawyers for the young people in their lawsuit. Yet despite that knowledge, the government “allows and enables those emissions” in a variety of ways, he says. It issues permits for drilling oil and mining coal. It leases some public lands to fossil-fuel companies. It gives the fossil-fuel industry tax breaks or other types of financial help. It lets places that burn fossil fuels release greenhouse gases directly into the air.
Taken together, these government actions endanger the plaintiffs’ lives, liberties and property, the youths claim in their lawsuit. In Fairbanks, Alaska, for example, 19-year old Nathan Baring faces more severe ice storms and bad air quality from summer wildfires. Jaime Butler, 17, of Flagstaff, Ariz., had to move from her home on a Navajo reservation because of water shortages. Climate change will bring even more severe droughts to her region. More severe storms and other extreme weather threaten 20-year old Sophie Kivlehan of Allentown, Pa. Others in the suit are similarly affected by climate change.
These plaintiffs — the people bringing the lawsuit — say the government’s actions violate basic rights under the U.S. Constitution. They also make a claim under what’s known as the public trust doctrine. It says the government must protect essential natural resources, such as air and water. Such protections should be for the good of everyone living now and in the future.
Government lawyers claim the law does not allow the youths’ claims. They also say the plaintiffs won’t be able to prove that the government’s actions have caused any specific harm to these children.
The lawsuit is a bit unusual. For instance, it doesn’t seek money for personal injuries. Instead, it claims that the government’s actions threaten the plaintiffs’ fundamental constitutional rights to life and liberty. And it wants the government to make and follow a science-based plan to rein in climate change.
Gregory, the lawyer, compares the climate change case to Brown v. Board of Education. In that 1954 Supreme Court case, experts described how separate schools based on race are inherently harmful to minority students. And the court agreed that it was unconstitutional. In the new lawsuit, “science shows that continued burning of fossil fuels will cause harm,” Gregory says. His plaintiffs say the Constitution forbids the government from taking actions that foster that harm. And they say the government must protect the planet for people now and in the future.
Science is key
John Walsh is a climate scientist at the International Arctic Research Center. It’s part of the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. “From the science side, there’s high confidence that climate is changing,” Walsh says. And extreme events such as strong hurricanes, droughts, heat waves and floods from rains “are going to become more frequent in the future.” He adds, “The path that we follow with emissions of our greenhouse gases will make a real difference in future climate.”
Walsh isn’t participating in the lawsuit. But other climate scientists can be found among the reports from the 21 expert witnesses whose statements have been filed in the case. These include climate scientist James Hansen, who heads up the Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions Program at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. That’s in New York City. Hansen is also Sophie’s grandfather.
Government actions on fossil-fuel use have “floored the emissions accelerator” for greenhouse gases, Hansen says in his expert report. That action hurdles the natural world toward points where future actions won’t be able to stop negative effects from occurring. The plaintiffs are therefore threatened by these actions, he says. And their plight won’t improve without major and timely action to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.
The experts have each highlighted different effects of climate change. Kevin Trenberth is a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. Climate change is already a factor in extreme weather, his expert report says. If people don’t cut back on emitting greenhouse gases, he wrote, “the security and lives of young people and future generations are and will be increasingly threatened by ever more extreme weather events.”
Frank Ackerman is an economist with Synapse Energy Economics in Cambridge, Mass. The government has “dismissed or devalued the serious harm from climate change that young people and future generations will experience,” his expert report says. In his view, that discriminates against young people today and in the future.
And climate change will also have health impacts. Lise Van Susteren is a psychiatrist in Washington, D.C. Climate-change impacts “harm children, not just physically, but psychologically,” her expert report says.
The plaintiff’s lawyers have asked the court to schedule a hearing so that the trial can move forward. The young people believe their case is strong.
As Levi explains: “Science is still on our side.”
algae Single-celled organisms, once considered plants (they aren’t). As aquatic organisms, they grow in water. Like green plants, they depend on sunlight to make their food.
Arctic A region that falls within the Arctic Circle. The edge of that circle is defined as the northernmost point at which the sun is visible on the northern winter solstice and the southernmost point at which the midnight sun can be seen on the northern summer solstice. The high Arctic is that most northerly third of this region. It’s a region dominated by snow cover much of the year.
atmosphere The envelope of gases surrounding Earth or another planet.
barrier island A low, narrow, sandy island that develops just off the coast.
climate The weather conditions that typically exist in one area, in general, or over a long period.
climate change Long-term, significant change in the climate of Earth. It can happen naturally or in response to human activities, including the burning of fossil fuels and clearing of forests.
Constitution The basic document spelling out a government’s structure and functions and setting forth principles to protect people’s basic rights. The United States’ Constitution, for examples, describes the powers for its three branches of government, explains how the nation will be governed and guarantees various rights for its people.
discriminate (n. discrimination) The detection or recognition of a difference between two or more versions of something. (in social science) To treat groups of people or things differently based a bias about one or more of their attributes (such as race, sex, religion or age).
drought An extended period of abnormally low rainfall; a shortage of water resulting from this.
factor Something that plays a role in a particular condition or event; a contributor.
fossil fuel Any fuel — such as coal, petroleum (crude oil) or natural gas — that has developed within the Earth over millions of years from the decayed remains of bacteria, plants or animals.
fuel Any material that will release energy during a controlled chemical or nuclear reaction. Fossil fuels (coal, natural gas and petroleum) are a common type that liberate their energy through chemical reactions that take place when heated (usually to the point of burning).
fundamental Something that is basic or serves as the foundation for another thing or idea.
generation A group of individuals (in any species) born at about the same time or that are regarded as a single group. Your parents belong to one generation of your family, for example, and your grandparents to another. Similarly, you and everyone within a few years of your age across the planet are referred to as belonging to a particular generation of humans. The term also is sometimes extended to year classes of other animals or to types of inanimate objects (such as electronics or automobiles).
greenhouse A light-filled structure, often with windows serving as walls and ceiling materials, in which plants are grown. It provides a controlled environment in which set amounts of water, humidity and nutrients can be applied — and pests can be prevented entry.
greenhouse gas A gas that contributes to the greenhouse effect by absorbing heat. Carbon dioxide is one example of a greenhouse gas.
hurricane A tropical cyclone that occurs in the Atlantic Ocean and has winds of 119 kilometers (74 miles) per hour or greater. When such a storm occurs in the Pacific Ocean, people refer to it as a typhoon.
plaintiff This is a person (or organization) who brings a case against another person or organization in a court of law.
psychiatrist A medical doctor who spends many years learning to study and treat diseases of the human mind. Treatments may consist of talking therapies, prescription drugs or both. This medical field is known as psychiatry.
sea An ocean (or region that is part of an ocean). Unlike lakes and streams, seawater — or ocean water — is salty.
sea level The overall level of the ocean over the entire globe when all tides and other short-term changes are averaged out.
Supreme Court The highest U.S. court to deal with legal questions about how to interpret the Constitution (the document that spells out how the national government works and what basic rights are), federal laws and treaties, and maritime law. Most cases at the Supreme Court are appeals of the decisions of lower courts. Constitutional issues deal with the rights of individuals, states or others. A few cases can also start there (such as disputes between two states). The Supreme Court has a Chief Justice and eight other justices (they are not called “judges” in this court). The president nominates individuals to serve on the court. Those appointments must then be approved (confirmed) by the U.S. Senate. Justices on this court serve for life, which means as long as they choose and are not found guilty of certain serious offenses.
threatened (in conservation biology) A designation given to species that are at high risk of going extinct. These species are not as imperiled however, as those considered “endangered.”
tides (adj. tidal ) The alternate rising and falling of the sea, usually twice in each lunar day at a particular place, due to the attraction of the moon and sun.
weather Conditions in the atmosphere at a localized place and a particular time. It is usually described in terms of particular features, such as air pressure, humidity, moisture, any precipitation (rain, snow or ice), temperature and wind speed. Weather constitutes the actual conditions that occur at any time and place. It’s different from climate, which is a description of the conditions that tend to occur in some general region during a particular month or season.
Court case: Juliana v. United States. United States District Court, D. Oregon, Case 6:15-cv-01517-TC, and related proceedings in appeals courts, including In re United States, United States Supreme Court, Case 18A410. Case filings posted online by the Columbia Law School Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.