A group of attorneys representing children and young adults began to file legal actions on Wednesday in every US state and Washington in an effort to force government intervention on climate change.
The courtroom ploy was backed by activists looking for a legal soft spot to advance a cause that has stumbled in the face of stiff congressional opposition and a skeptical US Supreme Court.
The goal is to have the atmosphere declared for the first time as a “public trust” deserving special protection. That’s a concept previously used to clean up polluted rivers and coastlines, although legal experts said they were uncertain it could be applied successfully to climate change.
The spate of lawsuits, led by an Oregon-based nonprofit called Our Children’s Trust, were based on “common law” theories, not statutes adopted by state or federal lawmakers.
Conservative opponents warned the effort could overload the judicial system and paralyze the economy with over-regulation.
Attorneys involved in the lawsuits said a victory in even one or two cases would give environmentalists leverage, leading to new regulations to rein in greenhouse gas emissions that scientists say are driving global temperatures higher.
State-level lawsuits were planned in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington, organizers said. A federal lawsuit was to be filed in California, while regulatory petitions filed elsewhere would ask state environmental agencies to tighten restrictions on vehicle and industrial plant emissions.
A 16-year-old climate activist listed as a plaintiff in one of the cases, Alec Loorz of California, said he latched onto the effort because he thought “it would give us teeth, give us a bigger voice than just yelling and marching.”
“People have tried pushing legislation and that hasn’t worked. Obama hasn’t been able to push anything through. The only option we have is the judicial system — taking this to the courts,” Loorz said.
Loorz said he began giving public presentations on climate change when he was 13, soon after seeing former US vice president Al Gore’s movie, Inconvenient Truth.
Another case that relied on unconventional legal tactics to address climate change got a tepid reception during arguments last month before the Supreme Court. That matter involved several states that sought to rein in power plant emissions by declaring them a public nuisance.
A ruling is pending, but Harvard Law School professor Jody Freeman said justices had questioned whether courts were the appropriate forum for the issue.
“I am generally skeptical the plaintiffs will succeed in the courts pressing for common-law remedies from judges,” Freeman said.
Columbia University law professor Michael Gerrard described the public trust suits as a “bold move” by activists looking to use all available options to impose greenhouse gas restrictions. Still, he joined Freeman in saying the pending decision in the public nuisance case would heavily influence the outcome of the state-level lawsuits.
A more optimistic view came from Gus Speth, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality under former US president Jimmy Carter.
Speth, now at the Vermont Law School, said public trust litigation over climate change could work if its backers can find a judge willing to innovate a new area of law.