Two weeks ago, Judge Thomas Coffin of Oregon, issued what history may in the future recognize as one of the most important court decisions in history. That decision allowed a plaintiff group made up of younger Americans aged 8-19 to sue the U.S. Government and the Oil and Gas Industry for being collectively responsible for climate change. The suit also says the defendants knew they were destroying the climate and decided to go ahead with their actions anyway.
The case, which many expected to be a challenging one even in its initial motions phase, is quite radical in many ways.
As the Judge stated in his summary about the case, the suit alleges that its plaintiff group:
“seeks relief from government action and inaction that allegedly results in carbon pollution of the atmosphere, climate destabilization, and ocean acidification. The government action and inaction allegedly threatens catastrophic consequences which have already begun and will progressively worsen in the future.”
So far it may to appear to be like any other such lawsuits. This time the plaintiff group is very different. Again quoting from Judge Coffin’s decision:
“Plaintiffs include a group of younger individuals (aged 8-19) who assert concrete harm from excessive carbon emissions. Also among the plaintiffs are associations of activists who assert they are beneficiaries of a federal public trust which is being harmed by allegedly substantial impairment and alienation of public trust resources through ongoing actions to allow fossil fuel exploitation. Finally, plaintiff Dr. James Hansen participates as a guardian for plaintiff ‘future generations’.”
The suit filed goes on to say that the “government has known for decades that carbon dioxide pollution has been causing catastrophic climate change”, has failed to take actions to curtail it, and, worse, has “taken action or failed to take action that has resulted in increased carbon pollution through fossil fuel extraction, production, consumption, transportation, and exportation”.
In describing the case, the Judge himself notes the unusual nature of the court case, saying that:
“In essence, plaintiffs assert a novel theory somewhere between a civil rights action and NEPA/Clean Air Act/Clean Water Act suit to force the government to take action to reduce harmful pollution.”
Also, just to make sure all necessary parties were represented in the case, the court earlier allowed the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM) and the American Petroleum Institute (API) the opportunity to intervene in the action.
Those entities along with the government moved in a past filing to dismiss all the claims of this action.
Their basis for requesting the dismissal covered a series of important legal issues, with some of the biggest involving:
Standing: Is it even possible that the plaintiffs could prove “(1) they suffered an injury in fact that is concrete, particularized, and actual or imminent; (2) the injury is fairly traceable to the challenged conduct; and (3) the injury is likely to be redressed by a favorable court decision”.
Public Trust: Is the U.S. Government really responsible for a “public trust” on behalf of the defendants?
Constitutional Issue: Is it really true, as the plaintiffs’ assert, that fundamental Constitutional rights have been violated in this matter?
On all issues, Judge Coffin pushed down the defendants’ motions and supported the plaintiffs.
On the issue of Standing, the Judge cited not just a long-term history of climate change problems but also supported the plaintiff’s complaints of damages more specifically related to the decision to locate the Jordan Cove Energy Project in Coos Bay, Oregon, along with its associated pipeline. And as an example of a concrete type of decision a court might eventually issue in this case he noted as an example “that a Dutch court, on June 24, 2015, did order a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions nationwide by at least 25% by 2020”.
On the Public Trust issue that was dealt with quickly as being in fact much of what the government is responsible for just by its very nature.
And as to the question of the Constitutional issue involved, the Judge agreed that the plaintiff’s assertion that their Fifth Amendment rights, which in part include the statement that ‘no person shall … be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law’ was at least a good place for a full court to begin its deliberations on the matter.
So, after much discussion and in a conclusion, Judge Coffin said in the end that:
“For the reasons stated above, the intervenors’ motion to dismiss … and the government’s motion to dismiss … should be denied. The government’s motion to strike … is denied.”
It is now so ruled that the case should proceed. Much work is ahead but this could lead to a major final decision, perhaps going all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, that the U.S. Government will finally be ordered to do something major about climate change. And by doing so rip the management process out of the hands of politicians.