Lawsuit was filed by Alec Loorz and other young climate change activists
No 495 Posted by fw, June 5, 2012
District Court Dismisses Children’s Climate Suit Brought Under Federal Public Trust Doctrine, by Shelley Welton, June 1, 2012, Columbia University, Climate Law Blog, Center for Climate Change Law.
The lawsuit of Alec L. and several other young climate change activists was dismissed by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia today. In Alec L. et al. v. Lisa P. Jackson et al., 11-cv-02235 (D.D.C. 2012), five teenagers and children joined the groups Kids vs. Global Warming and WildEarth Guardians to sue several federal agency heads for failure to adequately address global warming.
The plaintiffs proceeded on the theory that the atmosphere is a commonly shared public resource that defendants, as agency heads, have a duty to protect under the public trust doctrine. As relief, plaintiffs asked for an injunction directing the named federal agencies to “take all necessary actions to enable carbon dioxide emissions to peak by 2012 and decline by at least six percent per year beginning in 2013” (Slip. Op. at 5). Defendants and intervenors argued in a motion to dismiss that plaintiffs failed to state a federal claim for relief.
The district court’s opinion rejects plaintiffs’ federal public trust doctrine claim. Relying on the recent Supreme Court decision PPL Montana, LLC v. Montana, 565 U.S. —-, 132 S. Ct. 1213 (2012), the opinion holds that the public trust doctrine is a matter of state, not federal, law. It also explains that even if the public trust doctrine were a federal common law claim, such a claim has been displaced in this case by the Clean Air Act (as was similarly held in the 2011 Supreme Court case American Electric Power Co. v. Connecticut, 131 S. Ct. 2527).
Finally, the opinion expresses what has become familiar judicial skepticism with federal courts developing new law (as opposed to applying existing statutes) in the complicated arena of regulating carbon dioxide emissions. This skepticism may be warranted, but after years of inaction by the elected branches of government, it is no wonder that these young plaintiffs are exploring all possible avenues (including, perhaps, an appeal?).
- Youth turn to legal action as means to power, as means to hold leaders accountable for climate change inaction, May 8, 2011. “Here, in his own words, Alec Loorz explains why he is suing the US government ‘for making decisions that threaten our right to a safe and healthy planet.’”
- Mary C. Wood, creator of road map for citizens to bring lawsuits against government, May 8, 2011. “The atmospheric trust litigation part is a road map for citizens to bring suit against their government, (whether) city, state, or federal, to enforce the fiduciary obligation. We still have three branches of government in this country, last time I checked. But the courts have been passive observers to this monumental destruction that now threatens, literally, the future of human civilization and our children. The courts … must provide a check against runaway politicization by the other two branches. They have been on the sidelines in climate crisis. So this atmospheric trust litigation puts the courts as the appropriate enforcers of governments’ basic duty.”