Why are Govs. Inslee and Brown fighting the youth climate cases?

Settling with the young activists could be an important tool for climate action.

 

In 2011, 15-year-old Kelsey Juliana and 11-year-old Ollie Chernaik filed a lawsuit on behalf of Oregon youth, charging then-Gov. John Kitzhaber and the state of Oregon with not doing enough to fight catastrophic climate change.

Eight years and about a half-dozen court appearances later, Juliana and Chernaik, now college students, are headed back to high school: On Nov. 13, Oregon’s Supreme Court convened at Portland’s David Douglas High School to hear the case. 

A similar lawsuit is bound for a Washington state appeals court. Despite the two states’ liberal legislatures and governors who cast themselves as climate activists, the cases have been met with staunch resistance.  That the young activists should face such tough sledding in the Pacific Northwest highlights the tension between the often slow-turning wheels of the democratic process and the urgency of climate action.

Kelsey Juliana and Ollie Chernaik first filed a lawsuit on behalf of Oregon youth eight years ago.
Robin Loznak/Our Children’s Trust

At the core of the youth climate lawsuits is the claim that elected officials have failed to protect the public interest of future generations from the worsening climate crisis as scientists predict and observe rising sea levels, stronger storms and prolonged droughts. Therefore, the young people’s lawyers argue, it’s the courts’ responsibility to demand that the state preserve a healthy climate for future generations by rapidly phasing out greenhouse gas emissions.

In response, Oregon and Washington have defended their actions on technical grounds — citing separation of powers and questioning the reach of the public trust doctrine — rather than denying the perils of climate change. And in the most recent cases, the courts have sided with the states. In the latest decision in Washington, for example, King County Superior Court Judge Michael Scott wrote “the issues involved in this case are quintessentially political questions that must be addressed by the legislative and executive branches of government.” 

As the youth face setbacks in the courts, some observers think the cases are a distraction that isn’t moving the needle on climate action. Suing Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, both supporters of climate legislation, “defies logic” said Aseem Prakash, the founding director of the University of Washington’s Center for Environmental Politics: “Inslee and Brown are doing everything politically feasible.” For example, Brown said she would look into using executive authority to direct state agencies to pursue climate action following the defeat, in June, of what was seen as the most comprehensive climate bill in the country. And after voters rejected a carbon tax initiative in Washington in 2018, Inslee helped shepherd a separate set of climate legislation through the state Legislature this year. In Prakash’s view, it doesn’t make sense to target allies who are constrained by limits on their executive power. “Inslee can’t unilaterally wave a hand and change the state’s climate plans,” he said.

Though a wave of the hand might not do the trick, the young plaintiffs’ lawyers say that a pen stroke could. Either governor could choose to settle with the activists rather than argue against them in court, said Nate Bellinger, the state program manager for Our Children’s Trust, the nonprofit organizing climate lawsuits at the state, federal and international levels. “If you had a court-approved agreement, it would provide legal cover to take aggressive action on climate change,” Bellinger said. But he doesn’t see politicians willing to make that kind of end-run around legislatures that have at times been reluctant to pass significant carbon-limiting laws. “The impression we’re getting is (Brown and Inslee) don’t mind talking about climate change and taking incremental steps,” he said. “But they’re unwilling to take bold action.” 

Kelsey Juliana speaks in front of co-plaintiffs of her climate case outside the Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C.
Robin Loznak/Our Children’s Trust

When it comes to bold action, recent parallels at the federal level show how far executives can go to push ambitious agendas. President Donald Trump’s emergency declaration on building a U.S.-Mexico border wall has caused money to be re-appropriated and environmental laws waived while 30-foot-tall metal slats are erected in southern Arizona. This exercise of authority following the declaration of an immigration emergency has Democratic presidential candidates and lawyers considering the impacts of a future administration declaring a climate emergency. Several Democratic presidential candidates have already pledged to do so. Yet it remains unclear whether any of the candidates would direct their Justice Department to settle the federal youth climate case. 

At the state level, politicians preaching climate action continue to fight the youth climate cases. After nearly a decade in court, the plaintiffs, now young adults, still see their case as a key that could unlock sweeping change, and they are getting frustrated. In a scathing opinion piece in The Oregonian earlier this year, Kelsey Juliana questioned whether Brown could be a leader on climate while opposing the youth climate lawsuit: “If Kate Brown is so concerned that ‘kids should not have to fight this hard to protect the planet they will inherit,’ ” she wrote, “why is she fighting us tooth and nail?”

Carl Segerstrom is an assistant editor at High Country News, covering Alaska, the Pacific Northwest and the Northern Rockies from Spokane, Washington. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor 

High Country News Classifieds
  • WYOMING OUTDOOR COUNCIL OFFICE MANAGER - BOOKKEEPER
    The Wyoming Outdoor Council is seeking an office manager-bookkeeper to join our team. The office manager-bookkeeper supports the program and administrative functions of the Wyoming...
  • HEALTHY RIVERS SENIOR STAFF ATTORNEY
    WRA seeks a passionate attorney to join our Healthy Rivers team. The Senior Staff Attorney will research and advocate for wiser water management and updated...
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and will be accepted until: February 03, 2020. Overview Conservation Voters for Idaho (CVI) protects Idaho's environment...
  • WRITING SKILLS TUTOR FOR HIRE!
    Fort Collins, CO college students welcome. Meet on your college campus!
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • NATURE EDUCATION DIRECTOR
    Our mission is to inspire a life-long connection to nature and community through creative exploration of the outdoors. We are seeking an educational leader who...
  • REALTOR NEEDS A REMOTE ASSISTANT
    This is a business assistant position, The working hours are flexible and you can chose to work from anywhere of your choice, the pay is...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Central Oregon LandWatch is seeking an Executive Director to advance our mission and oversee the development of the organization. Job Description: The Executive Director oversees...
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • MEDIA DIRECTOR
    Love working with the media? Shine a spotlight on passionate, bold activists fighting for wild lands, endangered species, wild rivers and protecting the climate.
  • STAFF ATTORNEY - NEVADA
    The Center for Biological Diversity is seeking an attorney to expand our litigation portfolio in Nevada. Come join our hard-hitting team as we fight for...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Montana Wildlife Federation seeks an energetic leader to advance our mission, sustain our operations, and grow our grassroots power. For a full position description,...
  • HISTORIC COMMERCIAL OPPORTUNITY IN DOWNTOWN NOGALES
    Nogales. 3 active lower spaces and upper floor with lots of potential. 520-245-9000 [email protected]
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • DIRECTOR, TEXAS WATER PROGRAMS
    The National Wildlife Federation seeks a Director to lead our water-related policy and program work in Texas, with a primary focus on NWF's signature Texas...
  • SPLIT CREEK RANCH
    Spectacular country home on 48 acres with Wallowa River running through it! 541-398-1148 www.RubyPeakRealty.com
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...