Youth Plaintiffs Granted New Opportunity to Pursue Landmark Climate Change Lawsuit

In a significant legal development, an Oregon federal judge has breathed new life into a high-stakes lawsuit initiated by 21 young Americans, seeking to hold the U.S. government accountable for its policies that contribute to climate change. U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken, based in Eugene, has granted the youth plaintiffs the chance to modify their lawsuit, now seeking a judgment declaring that the nation’s energy policy violates their fundamental right to a “stable climate system capable of sustaining human life.”

The plaintiffs assert that despite being aware of the catastrophic consequences of fossil fuel extraction and consumption, the government has continuously permitted, authorized, and subsidized these activities. Previously, they had sought an injunction mandating the phasing out of policies such as oil company subsidies. However, the case was dismissed by the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2020, with the rationale that broad policy changes should be left to Congress and the executive branch, not the judiciary.

Now, the youth plaintiffs have approached Judge Aiken to amend their complaint, narrowing their request to a declaratory judgment from the court that the policies in question infringe upon their constitutional rights to due process and equal protection. Despite the government’s opposition to this request, Judge Aiken underscored that declaratory judgments alone can be considered an adequate remedy, noting that the Supreme Court has long recognized this. Moreover, she found that the plaintiffs had standing to sue, as the relief they seek can be provided by the courts.

This latest decision by Judge Aiken suggests that the case is headed for trial unless the U.S. Department of Justice employs further delaying tactics. Julia Olson, an attorney representing the young plaintiffs, expressed her belief that the evidence will eventually be heard at trial, but cautioned against the potential for continued opposition from the government.

The plaintiffs, who were aged between 8 and 19 when they initially filed the lawsuit in 2015, contend that the U.S. government had “willfully ignored” the hazards posed by climate change-inducing policies. Judge Aiken has previously indicated her sympathy toward the plaintiffs’ position, remarking in 2016 that federal courts had been overly deferential to industry and government interests, at the expense of the world’s well-being.

This case, identified as Juliana v. USA, resides in the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon under case number 6:15-cv-01517. Attorneys Julia Olson and Andrea Rodgers represent the plaintiffs on behalf of Our Children’s Trust, while Assistant U.S. Attorney General Todd Kim, along with Sean Duffy and Frank Singer from the U.S. Department of Justice, represent the United States.

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