Fifteen children and teenagers from across Canada sued their government on Friday for supporting fossil fuels that drive climate change, which they say is jeopardizing their rights as Canadian citizens.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Vancouver, is the latest from young climate advocates around the globe who are increasingly leading public protests and filing legal challenges to make their concerns about their future in a warming world heard.
“The federal government is knowingly contributing to the climate crisis by continuing to support and promote fossil fuels and through that they are violating our charter rights,” said Sierra Robinson, 17, a youth climate activist and plaintiff in the case from Vancouver Island, Canada.
“Our natural resources are at risk because of climate change, and as a young person my rights are being violated disproportionately compared to older generations,” she said. “Since we can’t vote, we have to seek protection from the courts.”
The lawsuit, La Rose v. Her Majesty the Queen—named for one of the plaintiffs and the Queen of England, Canada’s official head of state—alleges that the Canadian government “causes, allows, and contributes to dangerous levels” of greenhouse gas emissions. The suit claims the government is therefore responsible for the effects of climate change that the youth are experiencing, including air quality and health issues related to wildfires, increased flooding, thawing permafrost and sea level rise.
It’s similar to a lawsuit brought by young Americans who allege the U.S. government is violating their constitutional rights by failing to take action on climate change and by continuing to subsidize fossil fuels. Both cases are based on a legal principle called the public trust doctrine, a concept that certain natural resources are preserved for public use, and that the government has an obligation to protect those resources. But there are some distinct differences when it comes to legal precedents.
“I think in many ways the issues in this case in Canada are issues that have not been grappled with or addressed to the same extent as they have in the U.S.,” said Chris Tollefson, a law professor at the University of Victoria and one of the lawyers representing the Canadian plaintiffs.
For example, Tollefson said, the public trust doctrine is “a concept that in Canada is recognized but has not been analyzed to anywhere near the same degree” as in the U.S. “We are in a situation where there is a lot more new law to be developed here,” he said.
The young Canadian plaintiffs, ages 10-19, assert that the climate change effects they are experiencing infringe on their rights to “life, liberty, and security of the person” under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as well as their rights as beneficiaries under the public trust doctrine.
“People have waited patiently for government to act, but the reality is the government has not acted despite the promises that it has made,” Tollefson said. “Now is the time to bring this matter before the courts, so that the courts can encourage and require government to do a better job to fulfill its commitments under the constitution.”
Canada’s Fossil Fuel Struggle
The Canadian government faces two conflicting interests: addressing climate change and developing the country’s fossil fuel natural resources, including Alberta’s carbon-intensive tar sands crude oil.
The government has taken measures to reduce carbon emissions, including placing a price on carbon, but it also subsidizes fossil fuel development. That included purchasing a crude oil pipeline to bring tar sands oil to market at a time when the Trans Mountain pipeline’s expansion plan was in doubt. Federal elections held earlier this month, where pro-environment politicians gained a slight victory, were largely seen as a referendum on current energy and climate policy.
Tollefson said no one single action by the Canadian government constitutes a breach of the country’s charter, but the actions of successive governments have demonstrated such a breach.
“The record of this government and governments before, both in terms of supporting fossil fuels and at the same time failing to take action to address climate change, the totality of that does give rise to a charter breach,” he said.
‘Our Future Matters to Us’
The Canadian suit was filed hours before a youth climate strike in Vancouver in which Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg was expected to speak.
Thunberg has energized a global youth climate movement over the past year with her school strikes for climate. In September, she and 15 other children from around the world file a complaint with the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child over governments’ failure to act on climate change. In another youth climate case, Colombia’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of young activists last year, requiring the government to halt deforestation in Colombia’s portion of the Amazon and develop land management plans focused on combating climate change. In the U.S., the children’s climate case is currently on hold, awaiting a decision from a federal appeals court on whether it can move forward.
“What we are seeing is that this generation of young people are incredibly passionate about this issue, incredibly invested in it, and exploring ways politically, legally and in other ways to make their voices heard,” Tollefson said.
The Canadian lawsuit seeks to force the government to develop a “climate recovery plan” to reduce the country’s greenhouse gas emissions in line with what scientists say is necessary to stop climate change and protect the rights of youth.
“We want to stand up now and say that our future matters to us,” Robinson said. “We want our voices to be heard, and we want our climate to be protected for us in the future.”