Our use of fossil fuels is driving carbon dioxide levels higher and accelerating global warming. However, most of the impacts from our overuse of coal and oil fall on people who haven’t yet been born, much less had the chance to contribute significantly to climate change. Should future generations be able to sue over global warming? According to several courts in the United States, the answer is yes.
In mid-April, twenty-one young people received the go-ahead from an Oregon judge that their lawsuit against the U.S. government for failing to act on climate change could proceed. The plaintiffs, between ages 8 and 19, alleged that the federal government, by failing to act on climate change and continuing our pattern of polluting the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, has caused harm to today and tomorrow’s youth, and violated their constitutional rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Previous climate-related lawsuits have focused mainly on violations to specific environmental laws, and this was the first to focus purely on constitutional rights. The federal government and the fossil fuel industry moved to dismiss the lawsuit, but the court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs.
In Washington State, young people recently won a major victory against climate change. A group of eight children filed a lawsuit against the Washington State Ecology department for endangering their rights by not taking strict measures against climate change. The court ruled that the state must create rules to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by the end of 2016, fulfilling their responsibility to protect air quality for future generations. Late in May, a group of four young people in Massachusetts won a lawsuit in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, which ordered the state’s Department of Environmental Protection to set stronger regulations against greenhouse gases. These groups, as well as the students in Oregon, were represented by the non-profit group Our Children’s Trust. This group also has pending cases in North Carolina and Colorado, and is engaged in international work.
According to experts on climate change, future generations will bear the brunt of global warming impacts. This week, Dr. Frederica Perera of Columbia University penned an op-ed for Environmental Health News about why our climate change policies should focus on children. While adults do suffer illness and death as a result of fossil fuel pollution, children’s health and development suffer profoundly from our lack of regulation. “While air pollution and the adverse health impacts of climate change affect us all,” Perera writes, “they are most damaging to children, especially the developing fetus and young child and particularly those of low socioeconomic status, who often have the greatest exposure and the least amount of protection.” Perera also published an article in Environmental Health Perspectives on our moral obligation to protect our most vulnerable population – children – from climate change.
As the lawsuits in Massachusetts, Oregon and Washington demonstrate, youth activists and climate change organizations are prepared to tackle this issue head-on, and in at least a few cases, the courts are prepared to listen. We can only hope that robust regulations will follow on the heels of legal victories, so that today’s children are the last generation of young people to have to sue for protection from climate change. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for generations to come are dependent on our ability to reduce our fossil fuel consumption and our emission of greenhouse gases – and as these lawsuits prove, we cannot wait any longer.