Judge Dismisses Youth Climate Change Lawsuit in Washington State

The state judge wrote that climate change poses urgent threats, but that it should be solved by the executive and legislative branches, not the courts.

"Anthropogenic climate change caused by increased greenhouse gas emissions poses severe threats to our environment and requires urgent governmental action," the judge wrote. However, he said the state's constitution doesn't include a right to a clean environment. Credit: Walter Siegmund/CC-SA-3.0

A group of young climate advocates who sued the state of Washington to force it to reduce greenhouse gas emissions lost their case on Tuesday when a judge sided with the state and agreed to dismiss it.

The judge urged them to pursue their cause through other channels.

King County Superior Court Judge Michael Scott wrote that the issues at the heart of the case are political and should be considered by the state's legislative and executive branches, not settled by its courts.

The Washington lawsuit is one of nine state-level cases involving youth advocates supported by Our Children's Trust, the group leading a federal youth lawsuit that heads to trial in a U.S. District Court in Oregon this October. Like the federal suit, known as Juliana v. U.S., the state lawsuits accuse the government of failing to protect the children from the dangers of climate change and pushing policies that favor fossil fuel use.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently rejected a plea by the Trump administration to halt the federal trial, but in doing so, it also cautioned the lower court to tread cautiously before expanding judicial powers.

 

In his ruling on Tuesday, Scott made clear from the first sentence that "anthropogenic climate change caused by increased greenhouse gas emissions poses severe threats to our environment and requires urgent governmental action." However, he said that the state's constitution doesn't include a right to a clean environment, as the plaintiffs had argued.

It's unclear what influence, if any, the Washington decision might have in other states or at the federal level.

"The decision in this case was based on the Washington state constitution, with the judge finding that it does not confer a specific right to a stable climate system. Other state courts could reach a different conclusion with respect to their own state constitutions," explained Romany Webb, a fellow at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University.

"At the federal level, in the Juliana case, a federal district court judge has already held that the U.S. Constitution supplies a substantive due process right to a stable climate system," Webb said.

Federal judges used a similar rationale to Scott's about the limited role of the courts earlier this year when they dismissed three city lawsuits, filed by Oakland, San Francisco and New York City, that sought to hold major oil companies liable for climate change.

Washington's Climate Action Wasn't Fast Enough

The Washington lawsuit followed another that had been filed there in 2014 by a group of eight young people, including some of the same plaintiffs, who sought to force the state to require carbon reductions.

The following year, the King County Superior Court ruled that the state had a "mandatory duty" to reduce emissions. That ruling led to the state's Clean Air Rule. In March of this year, however, another court ruled that part of the rule was invalid. The state has appealed.

Washington state's leaders have supported climate action in recent years. In 2015, then-Gov. Jay Inslee committed the state to an international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 95 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. In 2017, he joined with other governors in the multi-state U.S. Climate Alliance, a coalition that aims to meet the goals of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.

But the young plaintiffs said the state wasn't moving fast enough, prompting the latest suit, filed this February.

Judge Urges Young Plaintiffs to Keep Fighting

In his ruling to dismiss the case, Scott urged the young plaintiffs to keep pressure on state lawmakers, writing that the young advocates "can (and must) continue to help solve the problems related to climate change." For example, he wrote in his order, they could urge state lawmakers to enact policies such as a carbon tax and measures that support development of clean energy.

The children's attorney, Andrea Rodgers, noted the climate change impacts already being felt this summer in a statement issued after the ruling: "On a day when the sun in Seattle is shrouded in smoke from wildfires, the youth plaintiffs are devastated that Judge Scott declined to give them an opportunity to present their constitutional claims in a court of law. By deferring to the Executive and Legislative branches of government that have affirmatively placed these plaintiffs in harm's way, without an appropriate legal analysis, the court has unfortunately chosen not to engage to protect the rights of these plaintiffs, to their detriment."

The young people in the case also expressed disappointment but said they hope to win on appeal.

"My rights as a Native American person are being taken away because of climate change," Kailani, a 13-year-old plaintiff from Spokane, wrote in a statement. "Camas, huckleberries, salmon, and other traditional foods are disappearing and this is because of climate change that the government continues to contribute to. How long are people going to ignore that climate change is a real threat to my life and my culture?"