Children’s Climate Case Coming to a Close

Posted on January 23, 2020 by Rick Glick

In an extraordinary opinion issued January 17, the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals concluded that the redress sought by the Juliana v. United States plaintiffs is beyond the power of federal courts.  It is not the conclusion that is extraordinary, which was widely expected, but rather the court’s extended expression of dismay in having to reach it. 

Plaintiffs in this case are a group of young people alleging that through policies promoting or acquiescing to fossil fuels use, the federal government has violated their constitutional rights to a “climate system capable of sustaining human life.”  The court never reaches the merits of the case.

The basis for the court’s conclusion is that the plaintiffs lack standing, meaning the right to prosecute their case in federal courts.  There is a three-part test for standing.  First, the plaintiffs must show “concrete and particularized injury.”  Second, plaintiffs must show that their injury is caused by defendant.  Third, the plaintiffs must demonstrate that the alleged injury can be redressed by court order.  The court found that plaintiffs satisfied the first two prongs, but not the third.

The court noted that the “plaintiffs have compiled an extensive record” that the government “affirmatively promotes fossil fuel use in a host of ways,” from tax credits to extraction leases on public lands.  These policies “will wreak havoc on the Earth’s climate if unchecked.”  The court had no trouble finding particularized injury to specific plaintiffs and that there is a genuine issue as to whether these government policies are a “substantial factor” in plaintiffs’ injuries.  The harder question is what a court could or should do to remedy the problem.

The court found that the scope of the desired remedy—an injunction to end pro-fossil fuel policies and to direct the government to prepare a plan to reduce emissions—is better left to the political branches to resolve.  The court recognized the harm from government policies, which the government does not refute.  However, such an order is problematic because:

  • Plaintiffs own experts acknowledge that the injunction would not “suffice to stop catastrophic climate change or even ameliorate their injuries. . . . Rather, these experts opine that such a result calls for no less than a fundamental transformation of this country’s energy system, if not that of the industrialized world.”
  • “As the opinions of their experts make plain, any effective plan would necessarily require a host of complex policy decisions entrusted, for better or worse, to the wisdom and discretion of the executive and legislative branches.”
  • “Although the plaintiffs’ invitation to get the ball rolling by simply ordering the promulgation of a plan is beguiling, it ignores that an Article III court will thereafter be required to determine whether the plan is sufficient to remediate the claimed constitutional violation of the plaintiffs’ right to a ‘climate system capable of sustaining human life.’ We doubt that any such plan can be supervised or enforced by an Article III court. And, in the end, any plan is only as good as the court’s power to enforce it.”

The plaintiffs have indicated the case is not over, that they will seek reconsideration of the three-judge panel’s decision before the entire Ninth Circuit en banc, and possibly the Supreme Court.  Reconsideration rarely overturns decisions and bringing the case to the Supreme Court is risky.  If the Court accepts the case, the result may be an even more adverse standing ruling for such cases.  There are cases pending in which the relief sought is not so broad as in Juliana, cases in which states are asking for money damages for harm caused by government fossil fuel policies.  The Ninth Circuit’s denial of standing based on redressability may not be as limiting in those cases, as courts are accustomed to cases seeking damages.

Even if the Juliana case ends here, it will have served an important public service.  The plaintiffs’ tenacity—and the extraordinary advocacy by their attorney Julia A. Olson—have shone a spotlight on the abject failure of the government to address climate change.  The court expressed its sympathy to that effort and its regret at the limited ability of the judiciary to correct the government’s failure:

The plaintiffs have made a compelling case that action is needed; it will be increasingly difficult in light of that record for the political branches to deny that climate change is occurring, that the government has had a role in causing it, and that our elected officials have a moral responsibility to seek solutions. We do not dispute that the broad judicial relief the plaintiffs seek could well goad the political branches into 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. That the other branches may have abdicated their responsibility to remediate the problem does not confer on Article III courts, no matter how well-intentioned, the ability to step into their shoes.

It was always unlikely that U.S. courts would feel empowered to issue orders to address so complex and global a problem.  The Trump Administration’s open hostility to aggressive action to restrain fossil fuels use—reaffirmed by the President at the Davos conference just this week—coupled with congressional inaction, suggests leaving the matter to the legislative and executive branches is a slim reed indeed.  But as the court concludes, Juliana and other climate cases make it harder for politicians to ignore the catastrophic consequences and get reelected.  The question is, how much more time do we have to take meaningful action?

A Hard Look at the Environmental Rule of Law

Posted on June 20, 2019 by Leslie Carothers

Years in the making, the first global report on the Environmental Rule of Law (ERL) was issued by the United Nations Environment Program and the Environmental Law Institute (ELI) in January 2019.  The report is a comprehensive review of worldwide progress in the development and implementation of the key elements of environmental law and is available for free on ELI’s website.  Extensive analysis of data and statistics accompanies a series of color-coded maps showing what the nations of the world had accomplished in 1972, 1992, and 2017. (The Earth Summit of 1992 greatly accelerated the adoption of environmental laws.)   Case studies highlighted in the main text describe innovative practices such as the use of specialized environmental courts in New South Wales, Australia, and Kenya. Their Environment and Land Courts offer flexible and informal procedures that can speed dispute resolution and decisions.

The report is divided into an introduction and five substantive topics:  Institutions, Civic Engagement, Access to Information, Rights, and Justice.  The section on institutions is focused on the challenges of administration more than the specific content of environmental laws and stresses the need for “capacity, accountability integrity, and leadership” by officials.  I would add patience and persistence to those qualifications.  As a former federal and state official, I was not surprised to learn that environmental agencies in other countries deal with “regulatory overlap and underlap” and constant demands for coordination of many actors and interests in implementing environmental decisions.  They all struggle with making technical, multidimensional decisions amid intense economic, social, and political pressures. 

The section entitled “Rights” is likely to be very informative and thought provoking for U.S. lawyers.   The report states that since the 1970s, “environment-related rights have grown more rapidly than any other human right,” and that by 2012, over 66% of national constitutions included a range of environmental rights.  Such provisions usually enable citizens to seek remedies for environmental harms directly from responsible parties and agencies. The report concludes that constitutional law and human rights law can provide an important safety net where there are gaps in legislation, important norms, and forums for addressing climate change.

The report’s thorough review of the recognition of environmental rights abroad is timely.  Today, the U.S. is heading for decisions on whether the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S Constitution and the public trust doctrine empower the young plaintiffs in Juliana v. United States to succeed in their claims that the federal government has a duty to adopt a comprehensive plan to prevent grave injury to health and the environment and special harm to their generation from climate change.   

In Juliana, District Judge Ann Aiken denied the government’s motion to dismiss, finding that the Juliana plaintiffs’ claims, though novel, should proceed to trial.  She held that a claim for a due process violation is stated “ where a complaint alleges knowing government action is affirmatively and substantially damaging the climate system in a way that will cause human deaths, shorten life spans, result in widespread damage to property, threaten human food sources, and dramatically alter the planet’s ecosystem.”  Juliana v. United States,  217 F. Supp. 3d 1224, 1250. (D. Or. 2016).

Following years of procedural twists and turns, the case was argued before the Ninth Circuit on June 4. The main issue is whether the district court correctly ruled that plaintiffs have stated a legal claim that merits a trial on the facts.  The federal government in both the Obama and Trump Administrations has opposed recognition of any legal basis for such claims warranting a trial.

By contrast, the ERL report describes decisions by courts in Pakistan and the Netherlands ordering the national governments to take stronger action to regulate greenhouse gases at the behest of citizens and organizations suing under constitutional or international conventions construed to confer environmental rights. Other non-U.S. tribunals have been similarly willing to recognize such rights and prescribe sometimes sweeping remedies. 

Will the Ninth Circuit or the Supreme Court also support the Juliana plaintiffs’ claims?  Probably not.   The substantive due process rationale for finding implied rights under the Fourteenth Amendment’s protection for life, liberty, and property cited by judges long ago to strike down state worker safeguards and other economic regulations has been generally discredited as allowing improper legislating by the judiciary. Substantive due process claims are usually successful in preventing government action rather than requiring it.  Since the 1960s, the only new implied rights recognized by the Supreme Court have protected personal privacy in sexual relations, including the choice of abortion, and supported a right to same sex marriage.  Those decisions voided contrary state laws but required little or no affirmative new action by the federal government.   

The plaintiffs’ second substantive due process claim is the common law public trust doctrine defining a duty of government to protect submerged lands and other resources,  which is grounded in historic government ownership of specific  natural resources.   The law on public trust rights and duties is too complex to explain  here.   But so far, the public trust doctrine has not yet been applied to compel action by the federal government, and it seems unlikely that the current Supreme Court, if not the Ninth Circuit, will uphold the claim for the first time in this case. 

The ERL report chapter on rights concludes  that “a rights based approach is more suitable for policy direction and for protecting people from egregious actions, rather than substitute for environmental regulation and enforcement.”  The issue in Juliana is egregious inaction. Whether or not the U.S. appellate courts are willing to break new ground on environmental rights, it will be interesting to see how the judges characterize a serious threat to the well being of the young plaintiffs that the federal government is failing to address or even acknowledge today. 

The overall assessment in the ERL concludes that notwithstanding dramatic growth in the number and scope of environmental laws, their effective implementation has not taken root in most countries   Carl Bruch, Director of International Programs at ELI and one of the ERL authors, agrees that “the culture of environmental compliance is weak or non-existent “ and that the international community and philanthropies need to do more on many fronts to strengthen environmental enforcement.   A most disturbing resistance to environmental laws is harassment and even murder of environmental defenders. In 2017 alone, 197 environmental defenders were killed.

The ERL report offers numerous good recommendations to upgrade performance and to monitor and track indicators of improvement in the environmental rule of law.  Environmental lawyers should be seeking ways to help.  All in all, this ambitious baseline report ably documents notable progress to celebrate, but reveals much more to be done to make environmental law work to secure a sustainable future.