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Children May Proceed With Climate Change Case, Federal Judge Rules

By Peter Clarke, JD on April 12, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

FindLaw columnist Eric Sinrod writes regularly in this section on legal developments surrounding technology and the Internet.

What are we going to do about climate change? Can government get the job done to protect us? Well, some children do not believe so, and they have taken the matter to federal court. Indeed, a federal magistrate has just ruled that their climate change lawsuit may proceed.

Thomas Coffin, U.S. Magistrate Judge for the federal district court in Eugene, Oregon, has ruled in the case Juliana v. United States, that a climate change lawsuit, brought by twenty-one youth from the ages of 8 to 19 years-old, may proceed. The lawsuit specifically asserts that the federal government of the United States is in violation of their constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property by allowing and supporting ongoing production and combustion of fossil fuels.

The lawsuit not only is brought by these young people, but it also is supported the organization called Our Children's Trust. Furthermore, Dr. James Hansen, an advocate for climate change, who recently was arrested with others for protesting the potential storage of natural gas under Seneca Lake in upstate New York, also is a plaintiff in the children's lawsuit.

Magistrate Coffin ruled that the children's legal complaint states a cognizable claim and may proceed and should not be dismissed out of hand. Thus, the issue of climate change now is up for decision in one federal court.

Magistrate Coffin referred to the children's case as an "unprecedented lawsuit" that involves "government action and inaction" leading to "carbon pollution of the atmosphere, climate destabilization, and ocean acidification." In ruling that the lawsuit may go forward, Magistrate Coffin stated the following in his legal decision: "The debate about climate change and its impact has been before various political bodies for some time now. Plaintiffs give this debate justiciability by asserting harms that befall or will befall them personally and to a greater extent than older segments of society."

He continued in his decision: "It may be that eventually the alleged harms, assuming the correctness of plaintiffs' analysis of impacts of global change, will befall all of us. But the intractability of the debates before Congress and state legislatures and the alleged valuing of short term economic interests despite the costs to human life, necessitates a need for the courts to evaluate the constitutional parameters of the action or inaction taken by government. This is especially true when such harms have an alleged disparate impact on a discrete class of society."

This decision by Magistrate Coffin simply marks the starting line for the children's case, and the case is far from the finish line. Magistrate Coffin has ruled that the case may proceed. Likely there will be considerable opposition to the case by the government, with potential opposition support from the fossil fuel industry.

The fight about climate change now not only will be considered by politicians within legislatures, but it is joined within the judicial branch.

Plainly, this is a case worth watching as it unfolds.

Eric Sinrod (@EricSinrod on Twitter) is a partner in the San Francisco office of Duane Morris LLP, where he focuses on litigation matters of various types, including information technology and intellectual property disputes. You can read his professional biography here. To receive a weekly email link to Mr. Sinrod's columns, please email him at with Subscribe in the Subject line. This column is prepared and published for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author's law firm or its individual partners.

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