Democracy Now! reports that a judge in Seattle ruled last month that eight children who have sued the state of Washington for failing to protect them from climate change can have their day in court. The children, aged 12 to 16, are arguing Washington state has violated its own constitution by failing to protect shared resources as required under the public trust doctrine. The ruling comes after a federal judge in Eugene, Oregon, ruled recently that a similar case in which young people are suing the federal government over its failure to protect them from climate change can also proceed. In that lawsuit, 21 activists ages 9 to 20 argue that the federal government’s actions violate their constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, and the government has violated its obligation to hold certain natural resources in trust for future generations.
The State news writes that the petitioners asked a state judge to step in and require the state Department of Ecology to come up with science-based numeric emissions reductions. Washington argued that it has complied with the court’s prior orders and there’s no basis for finding the Department of Ecology in contempt.
One of the plaintiffs in both the federal and state cases is sixteen year old Aji Piper. He said he and others are fighting for their right to live in a world that is healthy, safe and sustainable. “The most concerning thing to me is that our planet will be destroyed and I would have done nothing about it,” he said outside court. “We’re bringing this case because we need to have a stronger voice and right now that’s through the legal system.”
Piper and seven others in Seattle brought their petition in 2014 asking the court to force state officials to adopt new rules to limit carbon emissions based on the best available science. “Ecology has the legal authority and responsibility to remedy the ongoing legal violations of these young people’s fundamental rights,” Andrea Rodgers, the children’s attorney, told the judge.
In November, King County Superior Court Judge Hollis Hill denied their appeal but affirmed some of the children’s arguments, saying the state has an obligation to protect natural resources for future generations. At the time, the judge noted that the Department of Ecology was already working on meeting that obligation by writing new rules for greenhouse gas emissions ordered by the governor.
The plaintiffs again asked the judge to step in after the Department of Ecology in February withdrew its proposed clean air rule to make changes. The department was in the process of writing new rules but Hill in April ordered the agency to proceed with its rulemaking and come up with a rule by the end of 2016. The Seattle children contend the clean air rule the state adopted in September – which caps emissions from the state’s largest carbon polluters – doesn’t do enough to protect young people, and that the state is violating prior court orders by not doing more.
Assistant Attorney General Kay Shirey said in court that the department complied with court orders by adopting its clean air rule requiring power plants, refineries and others large polluters to reduce emissions by an average 1.7 percent each year. She argued that the petitioners’ claims amount to a challenge of the department’s clean air rule, which should be heard in Thurston County Superior Court. She also noted in court filings that the court didn’t direct the department to adopt any particular rule, nor did the court say what should or should not be in the rule.
The case is not about the clean air rule, Rodgers said, but about whether the state has fulfilled its constitutional and statutory duties to protect the fundamental rights of young people from the perils of climate change. “This is the world I’m going to have to grow up in,” said Gabe Mandell, 14, of Seattle, before the hearing. “Ecology has a mandate to protect our future and they’re not doing it. They’re not doing their job and they’re not doing what the judge ordered.”
The petitioners can now go to court and argue that the state has violated their rights under the state constitution and the legal principle called the public trust doctrine, which requires the government to protect shared resources, said Andrea Rodgers. All of the policies that the state has implemented in response to climate change are not resulting in emissions reductions that comply with state law and science, she said.