Standing with the climate kids

Supreme Court upholds young people’s right to sue the government over climate inaction

350 Sacramento asked participants to dress in their scariest fossil fuel costumes for the October 28 rally outside the federal courthouse.

350 Sacramento asked participants to dress in their scariest fossil fuel costumes for the October 28 rally outside the federal courthouse.

Photo by Dylan Svoboda

Chris Brown campaigned for nuclear nonproliferation in the 1980s, a movement characterized by the use of citizen lawsuits against the U.S. government that successfully forced the closure of nuclear plants in Ohio and Colorado. Now, as a member of the Sacramento Climate Coalition, Brown thinks the courts can facilitate a showdown over another global threat: climate change.

“The future of our youth is at stake,” Brown told SN&R. “Any time there’s an opportunity to bring these issues before a judge and challenge the system that basically allows people to screw over other people to make a profit is a good thing. The vast majority of us don’t have any authority in these things unless it’s advocacy, voting or lawsuits.”

On October 28, Brown and about two dozen others gathered in front of Sacramento’s federal courthouse building in support of what’s being dubbed as the potential trial of the century. The lawsuit, known as Juliana v. US, first filed in Oregon three years ago by 21 Americans ranging in age from 11-22, aims not for financial compensation, but to establish a safe climate as a civil right and force the federal government into action.

Despite efforts by the Trump administration to derail the suit, the U.S. Supreme Court has denied multiple requests to dismiss Juliana, most recently on November 2. With the landmark ruling, the lawsuit can move forward in lower courts.

Even if the lawsuit ultimately fails, Jennifer Wood, a member of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby’s Northern California chapter, sees the plaintiffs’ constitutional challenge as a catalyst for other forms of environmental advocacy.

“You can toss all the numbers and scientific arguments you want around, but stuff won’t get done until people feel the emotional weight and moral imperative to act for our children’s futures,” Wood said. “Hopefully this case will push the U.S. into action and stir a further conversation about climate change.”

Though the lawsuit originally charged the Obama administration with acting too slow against climate change, the plaintiffs now face a president who has worked to demolish his predecessor’s environmental record.

Since taking office in 2017, President Donald Trump has moved to increase fossil fuel use and abandon environmental regulations. The Trump administration has pulled the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord and intends to repeal Obama-era fuel efficiency and emissions standards. Trump’s environmental agenda will result in the death of approximately 80,000 U.S. residents per year, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The case stands in the shadow of an especially dire climate outlook. In October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a special report outlining catastrophic risks associated with failing to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the target set by the Paris accord. Carbon dioxide emissions must be eliminated completely by 2050 to hit this narrow target. Rising sea levels, food shortages and mass plant and animal extinction, among other disasters, should be expected if global temperatures were to reach 2 degrees Celsius or higher, according to the report.

The Sacramento Valley region is particularly susceptible to climate change-related devastation, according to California’s recently released Climate Change Assessment. Paul Ullrich, a co-author and climate change professor at UC Davis, noted that the region should expect an increase in wildfire frequency, crop stress, heat waves, winter precipitation and major flooding incidents.