“The most important environmental case in the country”(?) to be heard tomorrow

The lawsuit has been brought by 21 youth plaintiffs ranging in age from 10 to 21, challenging the federal government to develop a comprehensive plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“If this case goes forward, that will have a huge impact. It will become the most important environmental case in the country, arguably in the world,” James May, a professor of law and chief sustainability officer at Widener University, told Bloomberg Environment. “It will be the only place in the United States where there’s a court that’s hearing arguments about the future of the United States’ climate policy.”

The plaintiffs are making two basic arguments.  First, they claim there is a constitutional right to a livable climate.  The government has violated that right by failing to take steps to combat climate change.  Second, they claim the government has shirked its duty to protect the country’s natural resources, under the so-called public trust doctrine.

On the other hand, some observers have suggested that it is difficult to imagine how any ruling emerging from the case, especially one with a broad mandate, could effectively advance U.S. climate policy.  Said one:

“So many federal policies are interwoven. I think this is precisely the kind of case to show a national coordinated effort to address these questions may in fact be needed, but to utilize the court with these sorts of theories has the potential to create chaos on an issue of such significance,”

The suit was originally brought in 2015.  But it initially had a tough time gaining traction because the Obama administration could plausibly argue that it was taking steps to try to reduce emissions.  With the Trump administration, however, “that argument has flown out the window off the 20th story floor,” said one observer.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit will hear oral arguments in Juliana v. United States tomorrow, December 11.

Published by

Mark Kanazawa

I am Wadsworth A. Williams Professor of Economics at Carleton College, Northfield, MN