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Juliana v. United States | Young People Standing Together for Earth’s Climate

Written by Howard Learner, David Hales, Tatiana Brailovskaya, and Rachel Granneman
May 28, 2019

We are excited to launch our first Climate Action WebForum with a discussion about Juliana v. United States, the landmark “Youth Climate Suit” begun in 2015 by 21 young people from across the U. S. The case is proceeding through the federal courts and is gaining momentum, support, and international attention throughout the global environmental community. The Parliament is currently preparing an amicus curiae brief in support of the suit.

Juliana v. United States is also the focus of the first Faith and Climate Webinar on Tuesday, June 4, 2019, from 1:15 to 2:45 p.m. EDT. Registration is open and all are welcome. Moderated by PWR’s Climate Action Task Force Chair David Hales, the webinar will feature Howard Learner, PWR’s lead counsel and President and Executive Director of the Environmental Law &Policy Center, and Dr. Brenda Ekwurzel, senior climate scientist and Director of Climate Science for the Climate & Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The following essay and links are an introduction to this critically important legal action. Please join the discussion, send us your comments, and register for the webinar today.

Juliana v. United States

Young People Standing Together for Earth’s Climate

By Howard Learner, David Hales, Tatiana Brailovskaya, and Rachel Granneman

In June 2015, a group of 21 plaintiffs, ranging in age from 9 to 20 and from across the nation, filed a lawsuit against the United States government in the United States District Court for the District of Oregon (Judge Ann Aiken). The Plaintiffs in Juliana v. United States contend that the federal government knowingly “[…] permitted, encouraged, and otherwise enabled continued exploitation, production, and combustion of fossil fuels, […] deliberately allowing atmospheric CO2 concentrations to escalate to levels unprecedented in human history.” They contend that, as a result of these actions, the federal government has destabilized the climate system, thereby “significantly endangering the plaintiffs, with the damage persisting for millennia.”

The Plaintiffs contend that the federal government’s actions or inactions, as a matter of law, have: (1) Violated the public trust doctrine – the government’s obligation to hold certain natural resources in trust for the people and for future generations; (2) Denied them their federal constitutional rights of due process and equal protection, and will continue to deprive them of life, liberty, and property; and (3) Caused them great harm by permitting fossil fuel production, which causes potentially catastrophic consequences of climate change.

The Plaintiffs seek remedies including: (1) A declaration by the court that their constitutional and public trust rights have been violated; and (2) An Order by the court enjoining the Defendant United States government from continuing to violate those rights and directing the Defendant to develop a plan to reduce CO2 emissions.

The Defendant federal government moved to dismiss the complaint on multiple grounds. Following oral argument in April 2016, Magistrate Judge Thomas M. Coffin issued his Order, Findings and Recommendation that the District Court deny the motion to dismiss and allow the Juliana Plaintiffs case to move forward to trial. The defendants and intervenors filed objections, which were reviewed by U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken. On November 10, 2016, Judge Aiken issued an Opinion and Order adopting the Findings and Recommendation and denying the Defendant’s motion to dismiss.

Judge Aiken set the case for trial on February 5, 2018 with discovery to be conducted beforehand. That has led to a series of highly unusual procedural actions by the federal government and, ultimately, the Supreme Court of the United States delaying both discovery and the trial. Federal law limits “interlocutory” appeals – by parties seeking to appeal procedural and substantive rulings by a lower court before the final judgment issued – in order to avoid piecemeal appeals that would inordinately delay resolution of the issues by the district court, burden the court of appeals with multiple appeals, and favor parties with large resources to litigate over those who have less.

Under this institutional rule, the district court operates as a “gatekeeper” and must certify, under 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b), “that such order involves a controlling question of law as to which there is substantial ground for difference of opinion and that an immediate appeal from the order may materially advance the ultimate termination of the litigation … The Court of Appeals which would have jurisdiction of an appeal of such action may thereupon, in its discretion, permit an appeal to be taken from such order, if application is made to it within ten days after the entry of the order.” In short, the district court judge must find that its order is sufficiently important and a close-enough call to warrant “interrupting” a court case before a final judgment is reached. That is a discretionary decision by the district court judge that is almost always virtually unappealable. Except here.

Judge Aiken exercised her discretion to deny certification under 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b), and the federal government defendants essentially appealed that denial – through a “mandamus” petition – to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and requested a stay of the district court proceedings, which was denied. The federal government then asked the Supreme Court of the United States to intervene, and the Court declined to do so, but pointedly encouraged the parties and the lower courts to set limits on discovery and the scope of issues. Following another trip back through the courts, on November 21, 2018, U.S. District Court Judge Aiken certified the case for interlocutory appeal and stayed the case.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in a 2-1 decision, granted interlocutory appeal, and unanimously denied the federal government defendants’ petition for writ of mandamus. A three-judge panel will hear oral argument on June 4, 2019, and then the Ninth Circuit will likely decide the permissible scope of issues that the Juliana Plaintiffs can litigate before the District Court if the case proceeds. This is an extraordinary case on the merits, and the procedural history, thus far, is likewise extraordinary.
The Parliament of the World’s Religions is the oldest, most diverse, and inclusive interfaith organization in the world. It exists to “cultivate harmony among the world’s religious and spiritual communities and foster engagement with the world’s guiding institutions in order to achieve a more peaceful, just, and sustainable planet.”

The Parliament’s 1893 convening in Chicago is widely recognized as the genesis of the global interfaith movement, bringing together spiritual traditions of the East and West and encouraging cooperation among them. Since 1993, global convenings of the Parliament have articulated the responsibility of all people of faith to care for the planet and safeguard the wellbeing of future generations.

Over 10,000 attendees at the 2015 Parliament recognized the fundamental responsibility of people of faith to work together, guided by two imperatives: (1) to keep Earth livable by reducing and then ending emissions of greenhouse gases and moving to a post-carbon global economy based on clean, safe, and renewable energy; and (2) to do this while achieving fair access to energy for all, fulfilling basic needs, and ending poverty for all people. These imperatives apply not just for the present, but also for future generations, “who will bear the consequences of our actions.”

The Parliament’s Declaration on Climate Change places the responsibility to be stewards for the planet and for future generations on us, and more than 60 religious organizations around the world have made similar affirmations.

Declaration of the Parliament of Religions –

As members of religious and spiritual communities, we affirm these values and principles, which are taught by all our traditions and will guide our actions:

  • We are profoundly interconnected with nature, on which we depend for our existence.
  • We must respect and care for nature and all life.
  • We assert and defend the dignity and rights of every human being.
  • We must provide for the needs and well-being of all people.
  • We must act with love and compassion, and for justice and fairness.
  • We are morally responsible for our chosen actions.
  • We have duties to future generations, who will bear the consequences of our action or inaction.

Patriarch Bartholomew, as quoted by Pope Francis in Laudato Si’, asserts that degrading the integrity of Earth by causing changes in its climate “is a sin against ourselves and a sin against God.

Believers in a sacred and enchanted world have the opportunity – and thus the responsibility –to make the difficult choices necessary to sustain our living world.

Human-caused climate degradation demonstrates that government has shirked its responsibility to uphold basic human rights for future generations, forcing today’s youngest people and those soon to follow to grow up amidst heightened international conflicts, more violent competition for resources, and a toxic natural environment. Moreover, it bequeaths to them the ever more difficult moral choices that are so daunting to us.

To be consistent with our articulated values and principles, people of good faith in the United States and around the world must stand in support of our children and future generations. Choosing to continue the behavior challenged by Juliana et al denies justice to future generations and, because of its irreversible consequences, denies them the agency that cannot be separated from citizenship in the United States of America and from fellowship in the global communion of faith.


Learn more:

60 Minutes (March 3, 2019): The Climate Change Lawsuit that Could Stop the U. S. Government from Supporting Fossil Fuels

Our Children’s Trust: Meet the Youth Plaintiffs

National Geographic (March 5, 2019): Support is surging for teens’ climate change lawsuit


The Faith and Climate Webinar Series is sponsored by:

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