Editor’s Note: John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion who focuses on climate change and social justice. Follow him on Snapchat, Facebook and email. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
President-elect Donald Trump is likely to find himself the subject of a federal court case next year. The subject: climate change. And the plaintiffs: 21 children who want to ensure they have the right to a livable atmosphere.
A federal judge on Thursday denied the federal government’s motion to dismiss the “climate kids” case, meaning their lawsuit over climate change will go to trial in federal court in Oregon, likely next year.
The kid plaintiffs, ages 9 to 20, allege the federal government is doing far too little to keep dangerous global warming in check, and is actually creating warming by leasing federal property for fossil fuel extraction.
The basic idea is that politicians have failed to fix the climate crisis.
So the courts need to force them to do so.
The kids and their attorneys from Our Children’s Trust initially filed this case against the Obama administration. But Our Children’s Trust chief legal counsel, Julia Olson, told me on Thursday that Trump will automatically become a named defendant when he assumes the presidency on January 20.
“President-elect Donald Trump has asserted he will dismantle many of the executive actions taken by the Obama administration,” she said in an email. “Because President Obama implemented many climate change policies through executive action, Trump will have the power to water down President Obama’s climate change regulations and ignore the United States’ commitments under last year’s Paris climate agreement. Such steps will be disastrous for our country. These actions will place the youth of America, as well as future generations, at irreversible, severe risk to the most devastating consequences of global warming.
“Thus, it will be up to our courts, using the Constitution, to protect our posterity.”
The group will attempt to settle the case before Trump takes office, she said.
“Obama has a small window left to secure a long-lasting climate legacy by protecting the youth of America’s constitutional rights,” she told me. “However, if he does not, we are ready to bring the case to trial against Trump, et al. And in a court of law, a Trump administration will not be able to perpetuate climate denialism.”
Olson told me Trump will not have any wiggle room to get out of the lawsuit even though it was filed with Obama and members of his Cabinet as named defendants.
Trump will become the subject of the case when he takes office in January, she said.
The climate kids she represents will argue their constitutional rights to liberty and property are being violated by climate change, which threatens to submerge coastal cities, exacerbate drought and bring on mass extinction.
One of the group’s most interesting arguments is that kids have more to lose when it comes to global warming than adults do – because they will live longer. Yet they are unable to vote and have little if any voice in climate policy.
US District Judge Ann Aiken said the kids should get their day in court.
“Federal courts too often have been cautious and overly deferential in the arena of environmental law, and the world has suffered for it,” she wrote in Thursday’s decision not to dismiss the case.
James Hansen, one of the world’s most prominent climate scientists, joins the youth plaintiffs in suing on behalf of future generations. Mary Wood, faculty director of the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Center at the University of Oregon, told me earlier this year that the lawsuit is “the biggest case on the planet.”
That was when the case was aimed at Obama, who has tried to stake his legacy on climate action.
The case is likely to be all the more significant under Trump, who has called climate change a “hoax” and has threatened to roll back many environmental regulations.
The news that the climate kids case is going to trial comes at a critical time – only two days after the US presidential election and during the very week when world diplomats are meeting in Morocco to follow up on the Paris Agreement on climate change. That treaty, which is now international law, calls for countries to cut emissions and hold global temperatures well below 2 degrees Celsius. Basically it urges all of us to get off fossil fuels almost entirely in coming decades.
Trump, meanwhile, has threatened to scrap the Paris Agreement and essentially return the country to the fossil fuels era, despite clear risks to the health of the planet and people who live on it.
Perhaps this group of kids – and the courts – can force him to reconsider.