Teen activists face US government in crucial hearing over climate trial, which accuses federal government of violating young people’s constitutional rights

Lee van der Voo in Oregon, in The Guardian, Tue 4 Jun 2019

Plaintiffs Kelsey Juliana, right, and Vic Barrett, left, are two of the 21 youth plaintiffs in the climate change lawsuit petitioning a panel of judges to let their case go to trial.
 Plaintiffs Kelsey Juliana, right, and Vic Barrett, left, are two of the 21 youth plaintiffs in the climate change lawsuit petitioning a panel of judges to let their case go to trial. Photograph: Robin Loznak/AP

Twenty-one youth activists faced off with the US government in an Oregon courthouse on Tuesday, where their attorneys petitioned a panel of judges to let their climate case go to trial. Until it does, their attorneys argued, fossil fuel development should be halted on public lands.

The case of Juliana v the US charges the federal government with violating the constitutional rights of youth by perpetuating systems that contribute to climate breakdown. Those young people – who range in age from 11 to 23 and hail from all corners of the nation – argue that the constitution gives them and future generations a right to an environment free of climate catastrophe.

Their previously scheduled trial was abruptly halted in October 2018 after the government successfully petitioned the supreme court for review. Now, a three-judge panel at the ninth circuit has the final say.

The panel did not issue a ruling on Tuesday.

“I think what’s at stake is the ability of these young people to vindicate their constitutional rights,” plaintiff attorney Andrea Rodgers, senior staff attorney for Our Children’s Trust, the not-for-profit group representing the youth plaintiffs, told the Guardian ahead of the hearing. The key determination ahead, essentially, is whether kids get a trial over climate breakdown.

Those stakes and the government’s handling of the case have catapulted it to rare courtroom celebrity. The youth plaintiffs are media regulars, with seemingly ubiquitous appeal: teen magazines, local newspapers, radio shows and recent appearances on 60 Minutes and in Vanity Fair. Hearings have been a spectacle, regularly mobbed by suit-and-tie types, kids of all ages, tie-dye and purple-haired grannies. More than 70 support rallies were held worldwide in lieu of a trial last fall.

The digital following is no less a curiosity. The youth climate movement has begun to claim Juliana as central to its own narrative, using support rallies to train young leaders and to turn up the digital volume on the case with hashtags like #AllEyesOnJuliana.

Tuesday’s hearing was livestreamed and broadcast into a park near the courthouse. Following the hearing, the plaintiffs walked from the courthouse to the park, where a marching band played and activists shouted chants. Levi Draheim, one of the plaintiffs, rode on the shoulders of Nathan Baring, another plaintiff.

Supporters attend a rally after the climate change hearing in Portland, Oregon.
 Supporters attend a rally after the climate change hearing in Portland, Oregon.

Park-goers rallied around the youth waving signs to “Let the Youth Be Heard” under the watchful eye of giant heads of the 12 presidents with knowledge of climate change.

Jeffrey Bossert Clark on Tuesday argued against the trial on the government’s behalf. A former George W Bush administration appointee, he has publicly equated greenhouse gas regulation with socialist attempts to seize the economy and use of United Nations science as synonymous with US rule by foreign scientists.

Clark said that the suit constituted a direct attack on the separations of powers, and that the young activists wrongly want the courts, instead of elected officials, to direct things such as energy policy.

Julia Olsen, a lawyer for the activists, argued federal energy policy “puts children in harm’s way”. Olsen also stressed courts can and have intervened when government actions violate the constitutional rights of citizens.

Bloggers, legal experts, scholars and activists have puzzled over the government’s overall tactics to the case. In legal circles, the case is an anomaly, made an outlier by the repetitive, emergency petitions filed to squash it. That strategy has been repeated in cases on the far-right fringe of Donald Trump’s agenda: cases affecting DACA recipients, immigrants and the national census, and the transgender military ban.

The questions raised in the case, however, are increasingly pressing in America, and worldwide. While the UN counted hundreds of climate cases worldwide in 2017, and more than 650 in America, the question as to whether greenhouse gas emissions violate constitutional rights is being pressed primarily by Our Children’s Trust and its partners. The organization has filed legal action in all 50 states with varying results – litigation is still pending in nine states (Alaska, Colorado, Florida, Maine, Massachusetts, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon and Washington). Similar efforts to uphold constitutional rights to a safe environment are also under way in 13 countries abroad. In the Netherlands, such litigation may soon force the Dutch government to take more measures against climate change in a case now headed to the Dutch supreme court. The supreme court of Pakistan and an appellate court in Norway will also hear similar cases soon.

The US government has not disputed that climate breakdown is real, or that an environmental crisis looms. In fact, government experts generally agree with the plaintiffs’ experts on the science. Government attorneys have instead argued that the court does not have the legal authority to tell the federal government what to do about climate change, and that a trial would be too burdensome. They have also argued that Americans don’t have a right to “a climate capable of sustaining human life”.

That position is one 17-year-old Nick Venner, a plaintiff in the case, called, “kind of ironic because this case is the only way to get it done because every other effort has failed, essentially”. He said the government’s attorneys “really like to keep it in this theoretical phase because, when they do that, they can deny the humanity of the issues that they are dealing with”. Most at issue, he said, are climate policies that are “going to drastically screw over future generations”.

Those generations have sought to be heard. More than 30,000 youth signed an amicus brief filed by Zero Hour in support of the plaintiffs petition to move the case to trial. An additional 10,000 adults also signed.

“I don’t want to be picking these fights. The youth don’t want to be picking these fights. And, honestly, it’s exhausting to be in the streets all the time,” said Zero Hour’s executive director, Jamie Margolin, who is 17. She added she doesn’t see another choice when other efforts have failed. “Our childhoods are being spent begging them to stop ruining our adulthoods, and our adulthoods are going to be spent dealing with the consequences of their actions,” she said.

A decision to allow a trial and halt fossil fuel development in the meantime would stall production of 60 new oil and gas pipelines, 32 new liquefied natural gas and coal terminals, and one oil export facility.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

** Latest data shows steep rises in CO2 for seventh year: Readings from Hawaii observatory bring threshold of 450ppm closer sooner than had been anticipated, by Fiona Harvey in The Guardian, Tue 4 Jun 2019

Steam rising from the cooling towers of a coal fired power plant
 Steam rising from the cooling towers of a coal fired power plant. Concentrations of carbon dioxide have increased every year, reflecting our burning of fossil fuels. Photograph: Fehim Demir/EPA

The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased by the second highest annual rise in the past six decades, according to new data.

Atmospheric concentrations of the greenhouse gas were 414.8 parts per million in May, which was 3.5ppm higher than the same time last year, according to readings from the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii, where carbon dioxide has been monitored continuously since 1958.

Scientists have warned for more than a decade that concentrations of more than 450ppm risk triggering extreme weather events and temperature rises as high as 2C, beyond which the effects of global heating are likely to become catastrophic and irreversible.

May is the most significant month for global carbon dioxide concentrations because it is the peak value for the year, before the growth of vegetation in the northern hemisphere starts to absorb the gas from the air. The seasonal peak and fall can be seen in the Keeling curve, named after Charles Keeling, who started the observations on Mauna Loa because of its isolation in the Pacific Ocean.

This is the seventh consecutive year in which steep increases in ppm have been recorded, well above the previous average, and the fifth year since the 400ppm threshold was breached in 2014. In 2016, the highest annual jump in the series so far was recorded, from 404.1 in 2015 to 407.66 in 2016.

As recently as the 1990s, the average annual growth rate was about 1.5ppm, but in the past decade that has accelerated to 2.2ppm, and is now even higher. This brings the threshold of 450ppm closer sooner than had been anticipated. Concentrations of the gas have increased every year, reflecting our burning of fossil fuels.

Ralph Keeling of the Scripps Institute, and the son of Charles, said: “The CO2growth rate is still very high – the increase from last May was well above the average for the past decade.” He pointed to the mild El Niño conditions experienced this year as a possible factor.

Tuesday’s findings come from Mauna Loa and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which has also made complementary independent measurements of greenhouse gas concentrations since the 1970s. NOAA’s Barrow observatory on Alaska’s North Slope showed an average of 417.4ppm over the period, but the Arctic typically has higher CO2readings than the Mauna Loa series.

Pieter Tans, a senior scientist at NOAA, said: “It is critically important to have these accurate long-term measurements of CO2 in order to understand how quickly fossil fuels are changing our climate. These are measurements of the real atmosphere, and do not depend on any models, but they help us verify climate model projections, which if anything have underestimated the rapid pace of climate change being observed.” Greenhouse gas emissions Climate change Fossil fuels Extreme weather