The public trust doctrine holds that it’s the government’s responsibility to preserve some ecosystems, like waterways, that are commonly viewed as resources, so that everyone can enjoy them. But in 2012, a judge denied the claims, writing, “Ultimately, this case is about the fundamental nature of our government and our constitutional system, just as much — if not more so — than it is about emissions, the atmosphere, or the climate.” In other words, the judge ruled that it wasn’t the responsibility of the judicial branch to remedy human-caused climate change.

Other youth climate suits have cited the public trust doctrine in legal claims, but learning from the dismissal of Alec, subsequent lawsuits pointed to specific language in U.S. and state constitutions as evidence that the government was not upholding its constitutional duties. Juliana v. United States demonstrates the shift in legal strategy.

Juliana sued the federal government for violating the public trust doctrine as well as for impeding the young people’s substantive due process rights. But government agencies, namely the Department of Justice, have slow-rolled the case, and it remains to be seen if Juliana’s plaintiffs will get their day in court. With each passing year, the climate destabilization that originally motivated the 21 young people to go to court compounds.

“I get scared all the time,” Sahara Valentine, a plaintiff in Juliana, tells Teen Vogue. “I’m scared that the world that I’m living in right now is going to be so different from the world that I’m going to be living in years from now. I’m worried that I am going to have to decide whether or not I want to have kids based on if it’s safe for them.”

Usually, youth climate lawsuits are thrown out. Burger explains that judges typically look to their peers to see how they should rule on a case in situations where their opinions could have a precedent-setting effect. This is part of what makes the Held trial significant in that a judge wants to hear the evidence, signaling that the courts may be the site for climate remediation after all.

But Burger isn’t overly excited, as there are still a lot of unknowns. “Specific questions about causation and responsibility have not been tried in a court of law,” Burger says. While we can link some environmental impacts to specific federal agencies, like the Bureau of Land Management’s decision to lease federal land for fracking, Burger says that “the science of climate change and … the relationship between climate change and individual health impacts … has not gone to trial in the United States before.”

Plaintiffs in Juliana v. United States

Our Children’s Trust

Drawbacks of using the courts to target fossil fuel companies.

With money to be made from fossil fuels, extractive industries helped to politicize climate science and the very idea of the environment that surrounds us, challenging the basic concept of whether Americans bear an inalienable right to clean air, water, and food. And by putting science into the ring of politics, the two major parties have, for the last 40 years, taken opposing stances on what to do about climate change. Congress has largely failed to take substantive climate action, in part due to senators like West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, who is invested in the coal industry and has blocked a number of climate proposals from passing in the Senate, and in part due to differing ideas about whether the approach should be piecemeal or systemic.

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