A federal appeals court has dismissed a lawsuit brought by nearly two dozen young people aimed at forcing the federal government to take bolder action on climate change, saying the courts were not the appropriate place to address the issue.
A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Friday the young plaintiffs had "made a compelling case that action is needed," but they did not have legal standing to bring the case.
The lawsuit, Juliana v. United States, was filed in 2015 on behalf of a group of children and teenagers who said the U.S. government continued to use and promote the use of fossil fuels, knowing that such consumption would destabilize the climate, putting future generations at risk.
By doing so, the plaintiffs argued, the U.S. government had violated their constitutional rights to life, liberty and property.
Judge Andrew D. Hurwitz agreed with some of that assertion, writing in a 32-page opinion that "the federal government has long promoted fossil fuel use despite knowing that it can cause catastrophic climate change."
But, he continued, it was unclear if the court could compel the federal government to phase out fossil fuel emissions and draw down excess greenhouse gas emissions as the plaintiffs requested.
"Reluctantly, we conclude that such relief is beyond our constitutional power," Hurwitz wrote. "Rather, the plaintiffs' impressive case for redress must be presented to the political branches of government."
The decision reversed an earlier ruling by a district court judge that would have allowed the case to move forward.
Philip Gregory, who served as co-counsel for the plaintiffs, strongly disagreed with the 2-1 ruling, saying in an interview with NPR that they would seek an "en banc petition," which would put the issue before the full 9th Circuit for review.
Gregory, who spoke to some of the young plaintiffs following the decisions, says they were hopeful that their pending petition will be considered, "because as we all know, this Congress and this president will do nothing to ameliorate the climate crisis."
Both the Trump and Obama administrations opposed the lawsuit. All three of the judges involved in Friday's ruling were appointed under Obama.
Hurwitz and Judge Mary Murguia made up the majority but the third, Judge Josephine L. Staton, wrote a blistering dissent.
"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," she wrote. "It is as if an asteroid were barreling toward Earth and the government decided to shut down our only defenses."
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
A federal appeals court reluctantly dismissed a climate lawsuit yesterday. It was filed in 2015 by nearly two dozen young people who sought to force the federal government to be more aggressive in the fight against climate change. But NPR's Nathan Rott reports the court said those efforts should be directed elsewhere.
NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: The premise of the lawsuit was simple and sweeping. The federal government knows and has known for decades that fossil fuel consumption is causing the world to warm but has taken little action. That warming, the 21 young plaintiffs argued, threatens their constitutional right to life, liberty and property. Here's Levi Draheim, the youngest plaintiff, at a rally in 2013.
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LEVI DRAHEIM: I have personally had to evacuate my home because of hurricanes, and I have seen changing weather and more and more hot days. So that's why it is so important to move forward with this trial.
ROTT: The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals largely agreed with the plaintiffs, saying that action is needed. But they said, quote, "reluctantly, such relief is beyond our constitutional power." Meaning, the young plaintiffs would have to go elsewhere to try to compel the government to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
JENNIFER RUSHLOW: The Ninth Circuit decision is kind of a copout.
ROTT: Jennifer Rushlow is an environmental law professor at the Vermont Law School.
RUSHLOW: The court used its considerable discretion to get rid of the case and really toss the climate hot potato back to the executive and legislative branches, the more political branches.
ROTT: Philip Gregory, who served as co-counsel for the plaintiffs, says right now the political system is not the answer.
PHILIP GREGORY: Because as we all know, this Congress and this president will do nothing to ameliorate the climate crisis.
ROTT: So he says the plaintiffs will petition for review by the full Ninth Circuit in the coming months.
Nathan Rott, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF DR. TOAST'S "LIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.