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Federal appeals court tosses landmark youth climate lawsuit against U.S. government

A federal appeals court on Friday threw out a 2015 lawsuit by nearly two dozen young people to force the U.S. government to take more aggressive action on climate change, saying that the children did not have legal standing to bring the landmark case.

Judge Andrew D. Hurwitz wrote that the plaintiffs had “made a compelling case that action is needed” to slash the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming. But the three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled 2 to 1 that the courts were not the place to compel such action.

“We reluctantly conclude, however, that the plaintiffs’ case must be made to the political branches or to the electorate at large, the latter of which can change the composition of the political branches through the ballot box,” Hurwitz wrote.

In a blistering dissent, U.S. District Court Judge Josephine L. Staton, who served on the panel, criticized the notion that the courts have no role to play, saying the government itself has acknowledged “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. Seeking to quash this suit, the government bluntly insists that it has the absolute and unreviewable power to destroy the Nation,” Staton wrote. “My colleagues throw up their hands, concluding that this case presents nothing fit for the Judiciary.”

The lawsuit initially was filed in 2015 by 21 young people who argue that the failure of government leaders to combat climate change violates their constitutional right to a clean environment. A central goal of the litigation was to compel the government to scale back its support for fossil fuel extraction and production, and to support policies aimed at reducing the nation’s emissions.

The case had been scheduled to go to trial in late 2018 before a district judge in Oregon. But it was delayed at the last minute while the Supreme Court considered an emergency request from the Trump administration. The court refused to grant the Trump administration’s plea to stop the case before trial, instead sending it back to the 9th Circuit 

That is where the case, known as Juliana v. United States, got its latest hearing last June — and where the appeals panel quashed it on Friday.

“This is far from over,” Julia Olson, the attorney for the plaintiffs and executive director of Our Children’s Trust, said in an interview Friday, adding that the group plans to ask for an “en banc” hearing before the 9th Circuit bench. “That the judiciary cannot act as check on two branches that are causing an existential threat to the lives of these young plaintiffs, to America’s children and to the future of our nation is an idea that would make our founders roll over in their graves.”

Olson also said there is an urgency to move the case forward as quickly as possible, given the intensifying impacts of climate change.

“For someone who reads the science and talks with experts watching the changes on a daily basis,” Olson said, “it’s excruciating to watch the delay and all the missed windows of opportunity to actually address this crisis for all of our kids.”

The Trump administration, like the Obama administration before it, has repeatedly argued that the lawsuit should be tossed out before going to trial. Both administrations have insisted that the youths — some of whom are now adults — do not meet the legal requirements to bring such a lawsuit and because “there is no fundamental constitutional right to a ‘stable climate system.’ ”

Supporters of that position praised Friday’s decision. 

“I know that climate activists are disappointed, but the result is not a surprise to any lawyer in the country. No U.S. court has ever even come close to ordering the kind of relief that the activists were seeking in this case,” said Jeff Holmstead, an attorney with the legal and lobbying firm Bracewell, which represents energy industry clients. “With today’s decision, the question of how to deal with climate change is now squarely before Congress. Under our system of government, that’s where it belongs.”