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Juliana v. United States

ELR Citation: 46 ELR 20072
Nos. 6:15-cv-1517, (D. Or., 04/08/2016) (Coffin, M.J.)

A magistrate judge recommended that a district court deny motions to dismiss a lawsuit brought by a group of young people against the U.S. government for failing to protect them from climate change. The plaintiffs alleged that the government has known for decades that carbon dioxide (CO2) pollution has been causing catastrophic climate change, yet has failed to take necessary action to curtail fossil fuel emissions. They seek immediate action to restore energy balance and implementation of a plan to put the nation on a trajectory that will reduce atmospheric CO2 concentrations to no more than 350 parts per million by 2100. The government and energy interest groups urged the court to dismiss the case, arguing the group lacks standing. But the court disagreed. At this stage of the proceedings, the allegations, which must be taken as true, establish U.S. action/inaction that injures plaintiffs in a concrete and personal way. Given the allegations of direct or threatened direct harm, albeit shared by most of the population, the court should be "loath to decline standing to persons suffering an alleged concrete injury of a constitutional magnitude." Here, plaintiffs differentiate the impacts by alleging greater harm to youth and future generations. In addition, the group established causation and redressability. Assuming the United States is responsible for about 25% of the global CO2 emissions, as alleged by the plaintiffs, the court cannot say at this stage in the proceedings that a court order directing the government to regulate greenhouse gas emissions would not effectively redress the alleged harm. The effect may or may not be scientifically indiscernible, but that is an issue better resolved at summary judgment or trial rather than on a motion to dismiss. The government and energy groups also argued that the plaintiffs raised non-justiciable political questions. But the complaint raises issues of whether government action/inaction violates the U.S. Constitution—issues committed to the courts rather than either of the political branches. While the efficacy of any proposed regulations may be beyond the expertise of the court, it can evaluate the competing experts on either side of the issues and direct EPA to take a hard look at the best available scientific evidence. The defendants also argued that there is no constitutional right to be free from CO2 emissions, that the complaint fails to allege a classification appropriate for an equal protection claim, that the Ninth Amendment does not provide any substantive rights, and that the plaintiffs have failed to allege an otherwise complete lack of any rational basis for the purported aggregate action/inaction taken by the government. But at this stage of the proceedings, the claims should not be dismissed. Plaintiffs allege deliberate indifference by the U.S. government with respect to their health and well-being. Whether such action or inaction "shocks the conscience" cannot be determined on a motion to dismiss. In addition, the court cannot say that the public trust doctrine does not provide at least some substantive due process protections for some of the plaintiffs. When combined with EPA's duty to protect the public health from airborne pollutants and the government's public trust duties deeply ingrained in this country's history, the plaintiffs adequately state a substantive due process claim for purposes of a motion to dismiss.