'Climate Kids' Sue U.S. Over Future of the Environment

Named plaintiff Kelsey Julia speaks during a press conference outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington on the landmark case Juliana v. United States while many of the other plaintiffs stand alongside her. Robin Loznak/Our Children's Trust

Alex Loznak has been hanging around lawyers since he was a teenager in Oregon. That's when he first agreed to join a lawsuit that has changed his life and, possibly, could change all Americans'. He is one of 21 young plaintiffs in Juliana v. United States, a high-profile case that accuses the federal government of knowingly wrecking the planet, thereby violating U.S. Constitutional rights.

It's a high-profile case that could have far-reaching implications — if it ever goes to trial. Juliana v. United States has been churning around the legal system — several levels of it, in fact — for more than three years now with the help of attorneys at Our Children's Trust, while government lawyers battle to keep Uncle Sam out of court.

All of it has made for a dizzying, maddening, sometimes frustrating ride for Loznak, who was in high school thinking about his SATs when the case began and now is researching his thesis at Columbia University. Still, with everything he's put in so far and everything that lies ahead, Loznak remains all in.

"This is a case that is so complicated that some lawyers don't understand it. Lawyers will sometimes ask me how this case works," Loznak, now 21, says from his dorm room in New York. "It's so bizarre, it's so novel, there are some lawyers within my family that don't even understand what's going on."

The Case

To back up for a second: Juliana v. United States, in its most basic form, is a demand on the U.S. government to take action to mitigate climate change. It alleges that government officials (including former President Barack Obama), by creating a "national energy system" that spews out climate-killing levels of carbon dioxide, "have acted with deliberate indifference to the peril they knowingly created. As a result, Defendants have infringed on Plaintiffs' fundamental constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property."

Whether those arguments will fly in court, whether the "climate kids" (as some have dubbed the plaintiffs) will get the relief they seek, is something that is being closely watched by climate activists the world over.

But to watch this case is to get overtaken by a tsunami of legal maneuverings. Industry groups — the National Association of Manufacturers, the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers and the American Petroleum Institute among them — threw their weight behind the government, only to later withdraw. Countless motions have been filed by both sides. Stays have been issued. Dismissals have been considered. At one time, the case was being played out on three levels of federal courts — including the Supreme Court — at once, the first time (according to one of Lozak's lawyers) that ever has happened. President Donald Trump has taken Obama's place as a defendant.

To add to the legal morass, the case centers around something that is not uncomplicated in its own right. By now, even governmental organizations concede that overwhelming scientific consensus holds that climate change is real, is dangerous and is being caused by humans. Still, when someone like the president hedges on the topic, climate change can seem ... confusing.

The Science

"You have to really understand the science in order to understand why [climate change] is actually a constitutional issue," Lozak says, before reciting carbon dioxide levels throughout history and what the threat of rising levels of CO2 means to the planet. "The potential impacts of climate change are so severe that they really do constitute an existential threat to civilization. So it's not hard to make the next step that it's violating citizens' constitutional rights."

The science on the effects of climate change has been abundantly clear for many years. One of the goals of Juliana is to get that science into a courtroom and have the legal system rule on it. Then, backed by law, activists hope that action by the government to cut back on CO2 levels will come swiftly. It's happened elsewhere. (See the sidebar below.)

"The trial is really going to flesh out the science and the implications of the science in a very clear way," Lozak says.

The case, as it sits in mid-November 2018, still is on track for trial. It was granted the go-ahead in early November by the U.S. Supreme Court. Only a few days later, though, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals put the trial on hold again while it considers another request for dismissal levied by the Trump administration.

The District Court in Oregon has indicated it will set a new trial date if the 9th Circuit allows the case to continue. From Philip Gregory, one of the lawyers for the climate kids:

"Given the urgency of climate change, we hope the 9th Circuit will recognize the importance to these young Americans of having a prompt trial date. We will continue to move the case forward by completing discovery and responding to the various petitions filed by the Trump administration. We are pleased this stay is only temporary. We want to commence presenting the climate science in court as soon as possible."

Youth plaintiff Alex Loznak, right, fist bumps climate scientist Dr. James Hansen while they wait for the start of a hearing in the landmark climate change lawsuit in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.
Robin Loznak/Our Children's Trust

Fighting the Good Fight

Loznak, who grew up on his family's farm outside of Roseburg, Oregon, is majoring in sustainable development at Columbia with a minor in political science. His thesis delves into the politics of climate change, something that at this point may not engender much optimism, even from someone so young.

Yet Loznak sees change coming, pushed along by young activists like himself. Maybe not right away. But he sees it.

"If you actually look at public opinion polls, the public overwhelmingly supports the kinds of policies that we are advocating for," Loznak says. "I am not terribly optimistic about this administration, but I am optimistic about what the public actually wants. The issue is you just have to give the government a little kick in the rear to kind of get it to come around."

Loznak figures to be around to do some of the kicking. In a class on climate change law at Columbia — where his own case, Juliana, is discussed — he debated professor Michael Gerrard, an expert in the field. Now, after years of watching others argue his point and learning to make his own, Loznak is strongly considering law school after graduation.