Across the United States, American citizens too young to vote are suing states and the federal government to push for action on climate change. The youth argue that they will have to bear the brunt of climate change, not the policy makers.
According to the Associated Press, the Oregon-based non-profit organisation Our Children’s Trust has filed lawsuits or administrative petitions in every state and against the federal government. While some of the youth-led cases have been dismissed, others are still pending in states such as Massachusetts, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington.
The youth activists argue that because their generation will have to bear the brunt of global warming, they should have a say in American climate policy. The lawsuits are calling on the different levels of government to protect natural resources, including the atmosphere, as a “public trust” for future generations.
“We’re the ones who have to live with it if the oceans are acidic and the planet is 5 degrees warmer,” 13-year-old Gabriel Mandell told AP. He is one of eight activists between the ages of 10 and 15 to have petitioned Washington State to adopt more stringent, science-based regulations to protect against climate change. Represented by the Western Environmental Law Center, the plaintiffs argue that the government has violated its duties to protect share resources.
But some legal experts are sceptical that the litigation can succeed. Michael Gerrard, a professor and director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, told AP that it is an uphill climb to prove that the US public trust doctrine applies to the atmosphere. This was the case in Oregon in May when a court ruled that the state’s public trust doctrine does not apply to the atmosphere, water, beaches or shorelines. Two Eugene teens are appealing that ruling.
Richard Steward, a law professor at New York University, points out states can only make an “infinitesimal contribution” to climate change, which he calls a global problem.
But such objections are not deterring the youth activists. In August, 21 youth sued the federal government for its continued fossil fuel development.