As a heatwave scorched America with record-breaking temperatures this June, the Biden administration attempted to block a landmark climate lawsuit by declaring that “there is no constitutional right to a stable climate system,” according to court records reviewed by The Lever.
The assertion in Juliana v. United States — which echoed both the Trump and Obama administrations’ legal claims in the same long-running case — was part of the Justice Department’s latest attempt to halt the suit brought by children who assert that the Constitution requires the federal government to maintain a climate that supports human life.
That suit’s momentum could be bolstered by a separate legal victory in Montana this week, but neither the victory nor the intensifying climate disaster appear to have stopped the Biden administration’s crusade to kill the federal case. Indeed, Biden’s Justice Department filed its most recent motion to dismiss the case in the same week that large swaths of the country were under extreme heat warnings.
That filing came as President Joe Biden has refused repeated calls to declare a climate emergency, and as his administration backed a court case designed to accelerate the construction of a massive fossil gas pipeline, despite scientists’ climate warnings. Biden’s administration has also declared that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s scientific report about climate change “does not present sufficient cause" to halt a massive expansion of fossil fuel drilling.
“It is deeply disheartening to see the Biden Administration claim that Americans have ‘no constitutional right to a stable climate,’” Julia Olson, lead counsel for the Juliana plaintiffs, told The Lever. “When President Biden ran for office, he promised America’s youth that he would take bold action to combat climate change, but instead the United States is leading the world on producing fossil fuels, the very thing that is furthering climate change. Instead of fighting these young people at every turn, the U.S. Department of Justice should let youth have their day in court.”
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The effort to halt the Juliana suit is also supported by Republicans bankrolled by the fossil fuel industry. In 2021, a group of Republican attorneys general tried unsuccessfully to intervene as defendants in the case. Top donors last election cycle to the Republican Attorneys General Association, the state officials’ campaign and policy hub, included the oil giant Koch Industries ($885,000), the fossil fuel lobby American Petroleum Institute ($175,000), and oil and gas companies Valero Energy and Exxon Mobil ($125,000 apiece), according to data from Political Moneyline.
In the Biden administration’s June 22 court filing, Justice Department lawyers argued that because the child plaintiffs are not the only people who will be harmed by ecological breakdown, the suit should be thrown out.
“The state of the climate is a public and generalized issue, and so interests in the climate are unlike the particularized personal liberty or personal privacy interests of individuals the Supreme Court has previously recognized as being protected by fundamental rights,” the Justice Department wrote.
The federal case, which is being spearheaded by the nonprofit public interest law firm Our Children’s Trust, asserts that the U.S. constitution requires the government to combat the climate crisis and stop promulgating policies, like fossil fuel subsidies, that are intensifying the crisis in order to protect Americans’ right to life. Similar cases are now unfolding in state courts across the country, where plaintiffs argue that state constitutions enshrine similar rights to a livable climate.
This week, a Montana court ruled in favor of children in that state in a lawsuit that claimed the state’s process for approving fossil fuel permits violated the Montana state constitution.
It was the first time in the United States that a youth-backed climate change lawsuit has gone to trial. State District Judge Kathy Seeley wrote in her opinion, “Every additional ton of [greenhouse gas] emissions exacerbates plaintiffs’ injuries and risks locking in irreversible climate injuries.”
She also noted that state residents “have a fundamental constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment, which includes climate as part of the environmental life-support system.”
Earlier this year, Hawaii’s Supreme Court similarly recognized that the state constitution’s “right to a clean and healthful environment” includes “the right to a life-sustaining climate system.”
“It Is As If An Asteroid Were Barreling Toward Earth”
The Juliana case was originally filed in 2015 by 21 young plaintiffs, who sued the Obama administration in Eugene, Oregon, federal court for pursuing fossil fuel expansion policies while knowing the efforts threatened the habitability of the planet. President Barack Obama’s attorneys fought the suit, urging the court in 2015 to “reject plaintiffs’ claim to a fundamental constitutional right to be free of CO2 emissions.”
In 2016, Oregon District Court Judge Ann Aiken allowed the case to move forward, ruling that “I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society.”
After Donald Trump’s election, his justice department repeatedly tried to have the case tossed out, arguing that “there is no constitutional right to a ‘stable climate system.’”
In 2020, a federal appeals court panel sided with the Trump administration and dismissed the lawsuit.
U.S. District Court Judge Josephine Staton dissented, writing that “In these proceedings, the government accepts as fact 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.”
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But in June 2023, Aiken revived the case in Oregon by ruling that an amended version of the plaintiffs’ complaint could proceed to trial. Since then, the Biden Justice Department has filed multiple motions to dismiss or delay the case, repeatedly arguing, among other things, that nothing in the Constitution guarantees the right to a secure climate.
The case is expected to go to trial next June in Oregon.
Youth climate lawsuits are also moving through state courts in Utah, Virginia, and Hawaii. On August 3, a Honolulu judge set a June 2024 trial date for the latter case — just days before wildfires began to rage through Maui.