Our Children’s Trust takes Trump to court over climate change

Lou Helmuth Our Children's Trust climate change kids

Lou Helmuth from Our Children’s Trust breaks down the Juliana v. U.S. case, which goes to trial February 5, 2018.

Our Children’s Trust takes Trump to court over climate change

By Flannery Winchester

Surely you’ve heard of it: there’s a bunch of kids bringing some sort of lawsuit against the government about climate change. But that might be all you’ve heard. Details like, “Wait, who are they actually bringing the lawsuit against?” and “How can we tackle something as big as climate change in court?” might escape you.

Never fear—Lou Helmuth is here to demystify it all. He’s the deputy director of Our Children’s Trust. He delivered a keynote address at CCL’s national conference this June, where he explained exactly what Our Children’s Trust does, how they do it, and the far-reaching implications of their work. Watch his full talk here, or read the recap below:

Meet Our Children’s Trust

“We are a small 501c3 nonprofit organization based in Eugene, Oregon,” Helmuth said. With a staff of just 14 people and a tribe of expert volunteers around the globe, Our Children’s Trust works to execute their mission, which is to give young people a legal and public platform on the climate issue. “Young people don’t have a vote,” Helmuth said. “They rarely have their voices heard.” But he and Our Children’s Trust hope to change that with a series of lawsuits that will force the government to listen, and then act to secure a healthy atmosphere and stable climate.

“This is a global campaign. There are a number of cases in the U.S. at the federal court level and in several state courts. As well, we have actions pending in some other nations,” Helmuth explained. Each case is a little different from the other, since they’re being litigated in different jurisdictions, but they share some common features: All of the plaintiffs are young people, and all of the claims in the suit are science based.

“Science based” means the youth are asking specifically for action that will reduce our atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration to 350 parts per million or lower by the year 2100. According to climate scientists, including Dr. Jim Hansen, that’s the level we need for a stable climate. Currently, that concentration is over 400 ppm. “All of our cases are asking for court orders that will mandate government action to achieve that reduction and thus stabilize our climate system. That is a very tall order, and we have to get going on this quickly,” Helmuth acknowledged. “We are asking the courts to order governments to do what is necessary to achieve that metric.”

For the rest of his talk, Helmuth focused on just one of the several cases Our Children’s Trust is supporting: Juliana v. U.S. This case is in the U.S. District Court in Oregon, so it’s a federal lawsuit in its early stages. There are 21 plaintiffs, a whole host of government defendants, and a planet at stake. Let’s dig in.

The plaintiffs

21-year-old Kelsey Juliana is one of 21 young people who, together, are bringing the lawsuit. They’re from around the country: Oregon to Florida to New York to Hawaii. One of the plaintiffs, 18-year-old Sophie Kivlehan, is actually Jim Hansen’s granddaughter—turns out, climate advocacy runs in the family!

All together, this group is an engaged, educated bunch. “They are passionate, knowledgeable, aware, consequential human beings who have taken on this mantle and charge very purposefully,” Helmuth said proudly. Just listen to the conviction in 11-year-old Avery’s voice when she speaks on the topic:

The defendants

When the youth originally brought this case in August of 2015, the lead defendant was President Obama and his administration. Since the election, the lead defendant is now President Trump. Additional defendants include the Office of the President, the Council on Environmental Quality, the Office of Management and Budget, the Office of Science and Technology, and nearly Trump’s entire cabinet. Recognize a few of these names?

  • U.S. Dept of Energy and Secretary Perry
  • U.S. Dept of Interior and Secretary Zinke
  • U.S. Dept of Transportation and Secretary Chao
  • U.S. Dept of Agriculture and Secretary Perdue
  • U.S. Dept of Commerce and Secretary Ross
  • U.S. Dept of Defense and Secretary Mattis
  • U.S. Dept of State and Secretary Tillerson
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Administrator Pruitt

In addition to these defendants, a few trade organizations wanted to join in: The National Association of Manufacturers, the American Petroleum Institute and the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers Association. They joined the case on the side of the federal government because, they said, the case is a direct threat to their businesses.

Public trust and constitutional rights

This case rests on two principles: the idea of public trust, and the constitutional rights enshrined in the 5th Amendment. In ancient Rome, Emperor Justinian established the idea of public trust: “By the law of nature, […] the air, running water, the sea, and consequently the shores of the sea […] are common to all mankind.” Government basically has an obligation to preserve essential natural resources for all present and future generations, and that includes the atmosphere.

As for the Constitution, the language of the 5th Amendment states that Americans cannot be deprived of their rights to life, liberty and property without due process of law, and that all citizens are guaranteed equal protection of the laws. But for these kids, and youth everywhere, “Their right to life and property is in fact being deprived of them because of climate change,” Helmuth said. “They can demonstrate that their personal security is threatened by wildfires and drought and flooding and sea level rise. And so as a result of climate change, young people’s constitutional rights are being violated.” They also stand to experience those violations on a much more dramatic scale than adults, given that they are younger. “As a result, we have American citizens being treated differently as a result of the actions of the government,” Helmuth explained. “That creates a violation of the equal protections clause of the United States Constitution.”

And how will the plaintiffs show that those violations truly exist? For starters, they’ll point out that the U.S. government knew the dangers of climate change for decades and did not mobilize to stop it. For example, Helmuth explained, “In the late 1950s, the U.S. Office of Naval Research found that increasing the CO2 from the burning of fossil fuels is linked to climate change, rising temperatures, and hurricane frequency.” Similarly, a White House report in 1965 predicted sea level rise of 10 feet and “apocalyptic change.” These types of official reports and dire warnings continued for decades.

U.S. government's long-standing knowledge of climate change

And despite all this knowledge, the government not only didn’t stop it—they helped it along. “They knew for more than 50 years about all of this scientific threshold and how to fix it, and yet they affirmatively permitted pipelines,” Helmuth pointed out. “They affirmatively subsidized the fossil fuel industry. They affirmatively leased public lands for the mining of fossil fuels. Our government, despite all that knowledge, took affirmative action to exacerbate the problem at a time when it could have been remedied much more easily.”

“So these young people are asking for a declaration that their constitutional and public trust rights have been violated, that the government better get its act together and ensure that we stabilize our climate system by achieving 350 ppm atmospheric CO2 concentration by 2100.”

Recent progress in the case

“This case is going fast and is on fire,” Helmuth said. You can check the latest developments here, and mark your calendar for February 5, 2018, when they will appear in court. “President Trump can withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement, but he cannot withdraw from this lawsuit,” Helmuth said. “And let me remind you that at trial, alternative facts are perjury.”

If you want to support this incredible effort, follow Our Children’s Trust on Facebook and Twitter for updates. Also, Helmuth said, continue CCL’s advocacy for Carbon Fee and Dividend. Once this case establishes that the government has a legal responsibility to stabilize the climate, CCL is ready with a solution to help them do so.

Flannery Winchester
Flannery Winchester has put her words to work for magazines, for marketing agencies, and now for our earth as CCL's Communications Director. She is grateful to spend every day working to preserve this beautiful planet.