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9th Circuit dismisses youths' climate lawsuit against US federal government

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ordered a lower court to dismiss a case in which a group of young Americans sought to make federal agencies address and limit the impacts of climate change.

Two of the three judges on the panel found that while the climate is changing and the government's contribution to climate change was more than just the result of inaction, the court does not have authority to order, design, supervise or implement the request by the youths to have the federal government alter course in a significant way. The court, therefore, directed the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon, Eugene Division, to dismiss the case.

"The plaintiffs have made a compelling case that action is needed; it will be increasingly difficult in light of that record for the political branches to deny that climate change is occurring, that the government has had a role in causing it, and that our elected officials have a moral responsibility to seek solutions," said the majority opinion written by Judge Andrew Hurwitz and joined by Judge Mary Murguia.

"We reluctantly conclude, however, that the plaintiffs' case must be made to the political branches or to the electorate at large, the latter of which can change the composition of the political branches through the ballot box. That the other branches may have abdicated their responsibility to remediate the problem does not confer on Article III courts, no matter how well-intentioned, the ability to step into their shoes." The third article of the Constitution establishes the judicial branch of the federal government.

The 21 children involved in the case, who first filed the suit in 2015 against the Obama administration, claimed that the federal government, through leases to fossil fuel producers on federal lands and other decisions and regulations, has left climate change unchecked, which violates their Constitutional right to healthy air and life, liberty and property. Some of the young plaintiffs argued in earlier proceedings that their homes were flooded due to sea-level rise and extreme weather events and that they have lost food security, economic stability and recreational interests due to climate destabilization and ocean acidification.

In a dissent to the Jan. 17 9th Circuit opinion, Judge Josephine Staton said she would have allowed the trial to proceed at the lower court. The start of the trial proceedings had been put hold while the federal government's appeal to the 9th Circuit was pending.

"It appears the majority's real concerns lie not in the judiciary's ability to draw a line between lawful and unlawful conduct, but in our ability to equitably walk the government back from that line without wholly subverting the authority of our co-equal branches," Staton wrote.

But Staton argued that "at this stage, we need not promise plaintiffs the moon (or, more apropos, the earth in a habitable state)." Rather, "for purposes of standing, we need hold only that the trial court could fashion some sort of meaningful relief should plaintiffs prevail on the merits."

Staton also noted that the courts have played a significant role in major changes to the government in the past, such as ending racial segregation of schools through Brown v. Board of Education. Staton also acknowledged that the desegregation of schools took a long time, just as would addressing the climate concerns of the youth.

"I have no doubt that disentangling the government from [the] promotion of fossil fuels will take an equally deft judicial hand. Mere complexity, however, does not put the issue out of the courts' reach," Staton wrote. "Neither the government nor the majority has articulated why the courts could not weigh scientific and prudential considerations — as we often do — to put the government on a path to constitutional compliance."