Climate Change and the Courts: A new avenue for positive change

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While the spread of power that is constitutionally written into the United States government serves as a safety net against tyrannical rule, it also poses a challenge when confronted with immediate crises requiring quick, decisive action. Most people agree with the exhaustive supply of scientific research indicating climate change is indeed a problem and needs to be treated with urgency. However, the conservative executive and legislative branches are doing little to nothing to combat one of the greatest threats to global health, partially due to their entanglement with corporations that make money from burning fossil fuels. With these limitations in mind, nearly two dozen children and teens turned to the judicial branch in 2015, bringing a lawsuit against the U.S. government and its unwillingness to protect our planet. The children, who are trying to eventually bring their case to the Supreme Court, believe that the federal government has denied them their constitutional right to life, liberty and property by putting their future home at risk. While policy makers may not live long enough to suffer the consequences of their actions, young people and future generations will have to grow up under an atmosphere woven with the decisions of their ancestors.  

While the lawsuit Juliana v. United States was determined to have legal standing by Oregon district court judge Ann Aiken, it was dismissed by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Jan. 19. A three-judge panel claimed they did not “have legal standing to bring the case” and that “the plaintiffs’ impressive case for redress must be presented to the political branches of government”. 

While many agree with the judge’s majority decision claiming the lawsuit would require an unprecedented and unconstitutional exercise of power from the judicial branch, this is not a time for neat politics. Many successful cases, such as Brown v. Board of Education, were scrutinized in their time for being too drastic and giving too much power to the courts. In hindsight, they were brave steps toward justice. Especially in today’s political landscape, where Congress and the executive branch refuse to take action when corporations could suffer, it is essential that all avenues be explored. 

Even if the appeals court was unable to force the U.S. government to enact certain policies against fossil fuel emissions, they could have at least taken some form of action to steer Congress in the right direction. In an attempt to compromise, the kids asked for the courts to order President Trump and Congress to write a plan to fight climate change. However, the judges claimed that this would still force them to exercise too much power since they would somehow have to measure whether the plan was adequate

While Judges Hurwitz and Murguia formed the majority opinion, Judge Josephine L. Staton dissented. She strongly criticized the decision, writing that “in these proceedings, the government accepts as fact that the United States has reached a tipping point crying out for a concerted response… yet presses ahead toward calamity… it is as if an asteroid were barreling toward Earth and the government decided to shut down our only defenses”. 

It is true that attacking climate change through the courts would be a novel, and perhaps unusual, tactic for creating policy change. Some would counter that the current system was put into place for a reason and that the elected exist in order to execute the wishes of the electorate. This opinion is valid; however, do you really trust that President Trump and his allies will listen to you over a logo with green presidents smiling behind it? Are you comfortable with the efficacy of past methods to combat unprecedented threats to the environment? Should the future be dissuaded from challenging the present? It is not a simple issue, but neither is the Constitution… A document that thrives in its flexibility, allowing democracy to be a constant through ever-changing times.  


Katherine Lee is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus. She can be reached at katherine.lee@uconn.edu.

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