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Is it Already Too Late? Juliana v. United States and the Fight for Climate Action


In 2015, 21 youth plaintiffs filed constitutional climate lawsuits against the United States on the basis that the country violated their due process rights of life, liberty, and property. The plaintiffs claimed that the government's failure to take concrete steps toward reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions violated the government's public trust-related obligations to future generations [1]. Although the court ruled against the plaintiffs due to a lack of standing for their argument, both the majority and dissenting opinions agreed that climate change is real and poses an existential threat to the planet. In a dissenting opinion, Judge Staton stated that this ruling creates dangerous implications for the planet’s wellbeing and future climate related cases. The Circuit Court’s response stating that the courts do not have the power to mandate climate policy under the Constitution is unreasonable given that the judicial branch has the responsibility to uphold our basic liberties, which are threatened by the increasing threat of climate change.


Life, Liberty, and Property: The Due Process Rights

The basis on which the plaintiffs filed their lawsuit revolves around the Fifth Amendment, which states that American citizens cannot be “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”[2]. The plaintiffs argued that legislators had most abundantly violated their right of life, since the government was allowing a climate that will soon become incapable of supporting human life. Judge Hurwitz denied this claim and said “even assuming such a broad constitutional right exists” is unreasonable, adding to the court's holding that they have no justiciable grounds in slowing down climate change [3]. The plaintiffs’ argument on the basis of life has become controversial since many believe the threat of climate change, though severe in nature, does not yet pose an imminent threat to the population. However, the plaintiffs also cited the rights of future life, which poses another legal question of whether they had basis to file a lawsuit in regards to the future. Legally, future generations do not have basic rights protected under the constitution, but we are protecting ourselves and the overall good of humanity by protecting future generations.

“Procedural due process” concerns the procedures that the government must follow before it deprives an individual of life, liberty, or property.”[4] In this case, the court failed to take the necessary steps in regards to the procedure it must take to prevent future loss of life due to climate change. Historically, due process typically entailed a jury trial. The jury determined the facts of the case and the judge enforced the law based on these facts. In the case of Juliana v. United States, the plaintiffs’ goal was to present tangible evidence that climate change had significantly worsened and will continue to exacerbate their quality of life. The hope was that this evidence would persuade the judge to then enforce law mandating the government to take a firmer stance on climate change. Much to the plaintiffs' dismay, Judge Hurwitz advised the plaintiffs to go to Congress or the White House since the judicial branch simply can not pass legislation regarding climate change, a claim proven to be largely controversial.


The Ruling

When Juliana v. United States went to the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon, the United States moved to dismiss and argued that the plaintiffs “raised only political questions, lacked standing, and had not stated a claim for which relief could be granted.”[5] However, the district court disagreed and passed the case along to the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit stating that although climate policy was politically charged, the plaintiffs' suit did not raise political questions, questions the Supreme Court deems inappropriate for judicial review, and “a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society.”[6] Climate cases do not normally make it past district courts due to their lack of standing and concrete evidence, so this gave many climate change activists hope.

However, the case did not work out in favor of climate change activists when the Ninth Circuit ruled against their unique complaint. The court ruled that in order to have proper standing, the plaintiffs must have “(1) a concrete and particularized injury that (2) is caused by the challenged conduct and (3) is likely redressable by a favorable judicial decision.”[7] In regards to the first criterion, the sustained injuries by the plaintiffs due to the government’s lack of initiative in slowing climate change was proven by establishing concrete injuries such as being forced to leave their homes because of flooding. The second condition was demonstrated through the plaintiff’s injuries, which the court admitted were caused by carbon emissions from fossil fuels [8]. Point three, arguably the main reason why the plaintiffs were not able to successfully win their case, has caused great controversy since the court alleged that they do not have the power to correct the plaintiff's injuries, despite whether or not these injuries are legitimate. The plaintiffs were aware of their ambitious charge, so they settled on asking the courts to order that Congress and the president write their own plan to fight climate change. However, Judge Hurwitz remained against judicial policy-making and advised 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.”[9] Many judges prefer to stick to peaceful conflict resolution, and since solving climate change would require the full-scale transformation of the country’s energy system, it is no surprise that this was the court's decision.


Implications: Our Devastating Future

Some might say that the ruling of Juliana v. United States was easily predictable, but it was a groundbreaking case for the future of climate related cases nonetheless. With a current conservative majority in the Supreme Court, climate cases are struggling to make leeway. In June 2022, the Supreme Court placed restrictions on the EPA’s power to regulate carbon emissions by stating that any time an agency places regulations in regards to climate change, the regulation is invalid unless Congress has specifically authorized regulating in this sphere [10]. This case, like Juliana v. United States, halts the efforts of decreasing global warming by preventing agencies from placing restrictions on some of the largest contributors to climate change. unlike Juliana v. United States where the court claimed it has no jurisdiction to attempt to solve the climate change issue, West Virginia v. EPA proves that the court does have the power to act in regards to climate change, however this particular action is opposite to what environmentalists want.

All in all, Juliana v. United States demonstrates the courts hesitance in addressing climate change since solving global warming would involve extreme, but necessary, action. Nevertheless, the threat of climate change increases every day and the toll it takes on our basic liberties, such as access to clean air, will only increase. Just as Judge Staton wrote in her dissent, “the government accepts as fact that the United States has reached a tipping point crying out for a concerted response—yet presses ahead toward calamity.”[11] A court order that simply delays the impending doom of climate change would make a significant difference, and the courts do have responsibility to take action when our nation is threatened, so the lack of initiative in taking the steps necessary to protect the well being of the U.S. is devastating for the future of our planet.

 

[1] Juliana v. United States, Our Children’s Trust, https://www.ourchildrenstrust.org/juliana-v-us.


[2] The Bill of Rights: A Transcription, National Archives and Records Administration (Jul. 12, 2022), https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/bill-of-rights-transcript.


[3] Juliana v. United States, 947 F.3d 1159 (9th Cir. 2020).


[4] Nathan S. Chapman & Kenji Yoshino, Interpretation & Debate: The Fourteenth Amendment Due Process Clause, National Constitution Center, https://constitutioncenter.org/the-constitution/amendments/amendment-xiv/clauses/701.



[6] Juliana v. United States, No. 6:15-CV-01517-TC, 2016 WL 6661146 (D. Or. Nov. 10, 2016) - Children have standing under public trust doctrine to bring climate action, https://biotech.law.lsu.edu/cases/environment/Juliana.htm.


[7] “Juliana v. United States - 947 F.3d 1159 (9th Cir. 2020),” Lexis Nexis, https://www.lexisnexis.com/community/casebrief/p/casebrief-juliana-v-united-states.


[8] Ninth Circuit Dismisses Major Climate Change Lawsuit Against the Federal Government, Jones Day (Jan. 2020), https://www.jonesday.com/en/insights/2020/01/ninth-circuit-dismisses-climate-change-lawsuit.


[9] Robinson Meyer, A Climate-Lawsuit Dissent That Changed My Mind, The Atlantic (Jan. 22, 2020), https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2020/01/read-fiery-dissent-childrens-climate-case/605296/.


[10] Nina Totenberg, Supreme Court restricts the EPA's authority to mandate carbon emissions reductions, National Public Radio (Jun. 30, 2022), https://www.npr.org/2022/06/30/1103595898/supreme-court-epa-climate-change.


[11] Meyer supra note 9.






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