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

climate kids
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

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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 four 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 just recently graduated from Columbia University in June. 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 says. "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.

Where Things Stand Today

"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 today in mid-September 2019, still is on track for trial, but it's been slow-going. It was granted the go-ahead in early November 2018 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 considered another request for dismissal levied by the Trump administration.

Since then it's been a back and forth in the courts. On Jan. 27, 2019, a three-judge panel on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals granted a request from the plaintiffs to fast-track the appeal. Julia Olson, executive director and chief legal counsel of Our Children's Trust and co-counsel for the plaintiffs, argued before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on Feb. 22 that the trial should be allowed to go on.

"These young people deserve the chance to present their full case against their government who is harming them and let the light of justice fall where it may," Olson said in a press statement. "We will keep shining light on our fundamental constitutional rights until we obtain justice for our children and put an end to U.S.-sanctioned climate change."

The court agreed and the case went before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit on June 4, 2019. Both sides were allowed 20 minutes for oral arguments. Olson again argued on behalf of the plaintiffs.

As of now, there is no ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. "There is no set time frame, but we would anticipate a ruling early fall [2019] given that the Court has expedited the appeal in response to our request to do so given the urgency and building dangers of climate change," Olson says via email.

If Olson and the plaintiffs win, they will get the green light to go to trial. "The Defendants would likely try one last time to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to stop the youth from having the trial they have worked four years for, but the Supreme Court has twice before denied those attempts," she says. "We are continuing to prepare this case for trial and bring world class climate evidence into court through our experts, alongside the young plaintiffs' testimony on the ways they continue to be harmed by this growing crisis. We will be ready."

climate kids
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. Alex will be speaking at the Climate Strike in Portland on Friday, Sept. 20.
Robin Loznak/Our Children's Trust

Fighting the Good Fight

Loznak, who grew up on his family's farm outside of Roseburg, Oregon, graduated in June 2019 from Columbia University and is back in Oregon. His thesis delved 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. On Sept. 20, he and many of his fellow plaintiffs will join the Global Climate Strike launched by Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg to demand climate action. Loznak will be speaking at the event in Oregon.

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

Last editorial update on Sep 18, 2019 07:35:40 pm.

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