Jan 17, 2020 - Energy & Environment

Appeals court tosses high-profile youth climate lawsuit

Protesters attend a rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court held by the group Our Children’s Trust October 29, 2018 in Washington, DC. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

A federal appeals court on Friday threw out a lawsuit brought by 21 young people intended to force the U.S. government to act more aggressively to confront climate change.

Why it matters: The case, first brought in 2015, has been among the higher-profile pieces of climate litigation and underscores the challenges of using the court system to tackle global warming.

What they're saying: The 2-1 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit is highly sympathetic to the plaintiffs' concerns, but concludes the remedy doesn't lie in the courtroom.

  • Judge Andrew Hurwitz, writing for the majority, said a "substantial evidentiary record" shows the government "has long promoted fossil fuel use despite knowing that it can cause catastrophic climate change."
  • "We reluctantly conclude, however, that the plaintiffs’ case must be made to the political branches or to the electorate at large, the latter of which can change the composition of the political branches through the ballot box."

The state of play: The lawsuit included claims that the government was violating the plaintiffs' constitutional rights to a "climate system capable of sustaining human life."

  • The case was seeking a court order to force the government to "phase out fossil fuel emissions and draw down excess" carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
  • It was brought by the group Our Children's Trust on behalf of plaintiffs who were 19 years or younger when it was filed in 2015.

The big picture: As Axios noted in 2018, the case of Juliana v. United States has galvanized the climate movement around the country, particularly given the underdog aspect of having young people take on the government.

  • Michael B. Gerrard, head of a Columbia University climate law project, tells The New York Times that the decision is not a surprise.
  • “Many U.S. judges have vigorously enforced the environmental laws written by Congress but won’t go beyond that," he told the paper.

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