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January 17, 2020 -Today, the Ninth Circuit delivered its ruling in Juliana v United States, the landmark climate case brought by 21 youth plaintiffs against the US government for violating their constitutional rights to a livable climate.
“What is remarkable about this decision, and what will land it in legal textbooks for decades to come, is that the Ninth Circuit recognizes the grave realities of the climate crisis and the government’s role in causing climate harms, but immediately abdicates the court’s own responsibility to address and remedy those harms,” says Carroll Muffett, President of the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL).
The Ninth Circuit concluded that climate change is happening because of fossil fuel combustion and that the government has long understood the risks. “The record leaves little basis for denying that climate change is occurring at an increasingly rapid pace.” The court recognized the “copious expert evidence” that “this unprecedented rise stems from fossil fuel combustion and will wreak havoc on the Earth’s climate if unchecked,” and “[a]bsent some action, the destabilizing climate will bury cities, spawn life-threatening natural disasters, and jeopardize critical food and water supplies.”
“The record also establishes that the government’s contribution to climate change is not simply a result of inaction,” the court held. “The government affirmatively promotes fossil fuel use in a host of ways, including beneficial tax provisions, permits for imports and exports, subsidies for domestic and overseas projects, and leases for fuel extraction on federal land.”
The Ninth Circuit held that the harms to youth plaintiffs in the case are sufficiently concrete and personal to be considered by the courts. It held that there is a clear causal chain between the plaintiffs’ injuries and the government’s actions. And it held that fossil fuels are the critical link in this chain. “The plaintiffs’ alleged injuries are caused by carbon emissions from fossil fuel production, extraction, and transportation.”
“Yet remarkably, having recognized the gravity of harms affecting these plaintiffs and the future generations that they represent, and the responsibility of the US government for causing those harms, the Ninth Circuit concludes that it is not the role of courts to remedy that injustice,” says Muffett. “But for centuries, and emphatically, that has been the definition of the role of courts: when plaintiffs are suffering harms to fundamental rights at the hands of other branches of government, addressing those wrongs and protecting plaintiffs’ rights is the essential and inescapable domain of the federal courts.”
“Whether on issues of equality between genders or equality between races, courts have a long history of doing precisely what the panel says they cannot do here. Now, the entire Ninth Circuit will have the opportunity to either correct that error and make a history it can be proud of, or replicate it, and spend the decades to come as another grim reminder that courts too often perpetuate injustice rather than confront it.”