A federal appeals court on March 7 rejected the U.S. government’s bid to halt a lawsuit by young people claiming that President Donald Trump and his administration are violating their constitutional rights by ignoring the harms caused by climate change.
By a 3-0 vote, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco said the administration had not met the “high bar” under federal law to dismiss the Oregon lawsuit, which was originally brought in 2015 against the administration of former President Barack Obama.
The potentially far-reaching case is one of a handful seeking to have courts address global warming and its causes.
Twenty-one plaintiffs, now aged 10 to 21, accused federal officials and oil industry executives of knowing for decades that carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels destabilize the climate, but refusing to do anything about it.
They said this has deprived them of their due process rights to life, liberty and property, including living in a habitable climate.
U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken in Eugene, Oregon in November 2016 refused to dismiss the lawsuit, saying a quick dismissal without addressing the merits could sanction the government’s alleged “knowing decision to poison the air.”
In seeking to overturn that ruling, the government said letting the case proceed could lead to burdensome litigation, and provoke a “constitutional crisis” by pitting courts against Trump and the many other Executive Branch officials named as defendants.
But in the March 6 decision, Chief Judge Sidney Thomas said the dismissal request was premature, and deciding whether the plaintiffs’ claims were too broad could be addressed through the normal legal process.
“Litigation burdens are part of our legal system, and the defendants still have the usual remedies before the district court for nonmeritorious litigation,” Thomas wrote. “Claims and remedies often are vastly narrowed as litigation proceeds; we have no reason to assume this case will be any different.”
The U.S. Department of Justice, which handled the government appeal, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Julia Olson, who represented the plaintiffs and is executive director of Our Children’s Trust, which advocates for improving the climate, in an interview welcomed the decision.
“It’s very exciting,” she said. “It will be the first time that climate science and the federal government’s role in creating its dangers will go on trial in a U.S. court.”
The lawsuit was returned to Aiken for further proceedings.