A local teen is part of groundbreaking lawsuit moving through the courts that alleges the federal government violated her rights by knowing for decades that fossil fuels create pollution that destabilizes the climate.
Advocacy group Our Children's Trust filed the suit on behalf of Victoria Barrett of White Plains, New York, along with 20 other young people as well as other groups from around the country.
The attorneys in the case charge that U.S. presidents and federal agencies have been well informed on how dangerous the burning of fossil fuels is to the climate, but have ignored its ill effects.
"Lyndon Johnson [was] the first president I'm aware of who was really actively working with his science advisers issuing reports out of the White House on atmospheric pollution and climate change," said Julia Olson, executive director of Our Children's Trust and the lead attorney in the lawsuit. Her private law office is known as Wild Earth Advocates.
Olson added that statements about pollution and climate change go back in the U.S. Congressional Record to as early as 1911.
The lawsuit is based on three claims. First, that the federal government is violating the young people's Fifth Amendment rights to life, liberty and property, when it ignores the climate change created by burning fossil fuels.
The complaint also alleges that kids are being discriminated against for being young, because in calculating the social costs of carbon, government analysts place a higher value on citizens living today than on those who will be born tomorrow.
Finally, the suit alleges that the federal government’s inaction on fossil fuels is a violation of a principle that goes back to Roman law called the public trust doctrine.
"It’s a really simple concept, that government as a sovereign has an obligation to ensure that resources are there not just for the present generation but for future generations," said Olson.
Originally filed against President Obama and federal agencies under his authority, the complaint has since transferred to the Trump administration.
Attorney Olson said it was "unclear" what position Trump would ultimately take on climate change, though the President has tweeted that climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese.
The American Petroleum Institute, the National Association of Manufacturers and the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers have also signed on as defendants; none returned requests for comment. The U.S. Department of Justice said it does not comment on ongoing litigation.
Other youth advocacy groups, including Earth Guardians and Future Generations have signed onto the case as plaintiffs, through their guardian, renowned climate scientist Dr. James Hansen. Hansen was formerly the director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and is now an Adjunct Professor at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. His granddaughter is also a plaintiff.
Victoria Barrett of White Plains decided to sign on to the suit after years of participating in Global Kids, an after school program at her high school Notre Dame School in the West Village. That led the 17-year-old to the group Alliance for Climate Education, where her interest in pollution and social justice issues grew.
"I learned a lot about how...low income communities in New York City are disproportionately impacted by all natural disasters that we feel here, because low income housing is typically built in coastal areas," said Barrett.
In the complaint, Barrett described her emotional distress from the increase in superstorms like Sandy, that flooded her school and forced it to shut down. She also complained that increasingly hot summers have made her pollen allergies worse. In the final days of Obama's administration, she mailed petitions with about 62,000 signatures to the White House that asked the President to settle the case. He did not.
In what legal experts describe as a surprising move, U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken issued an order denying the government's motion to dismiss the case the complaint got a green light to move forward in November 2016, when U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken issued an order denying the government's motion to dismiss the case; it could set a legal precedent.
In what legal experts describe as a surprising move, the complaint got a green light to move forward in November 2016, when U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken issued an order denying the government's motion to dismiss the case; that could set a legal precedent.
"This is the first decision from any U.S. court finding that there could be a federal constitutional right to a clean environment," said Columbia Law School professor Michael Gerrard, who also directs the Saban Center for Climate Change Law.
Gerrard said one state court in Washington state has already picked up on the theories espoused in the climate lawsuit and in Aiken's order.
Both sides return to the courtroom in February. A court date could be set as early as this summer.