Kids are suing President Donald Trump. Yes, really.
The heart of the lawsuit, Juliana, et al. v. United States of America, et al., is whether the federal government has a duty to react to climate change. It names a wide swath of the federal government as defendants, including the government as a whole, the Environmental Protection Agency, and, yes, the president.
It’s a complicated story, so to help make sense of it, here are five quick things you should know about this lawsuit.
1. Yeah, it’s actually kids.
There are 21 of them. They range from preteen to early 20s, but they collectively have some pretty serious activist and volunteer chops.
Victoria Barrett of White Plains, New York, for example, got involved after joining the Alliance for Climate Education.
"I learned a lot about how … low income communities in New York City are disproportionately impacted by all natural disasters that we feel here, because low income housing is typically built in coastal areas," Barrett told WYNC. She cited her school closing after Hurricane Sandy and worsening pollen seasons in her complaint.
She’s joined by other young activists and volunteers, such as Avery McRae, Alec Loorz, and Xiuhtezcatl Roske-Martinez. Their collective case was brought to the court by an environmental group, Our Children’s Trust.
2. The gist of the lawsuit is whether climate change violates their constitutional rights.
Or, rather, whether the government’s inaction on climate change does. Three key takeaways:
- Climate change could harm their life, liberty, and property, and it could damage certain natural or cultural resources.
- The Constitution says the government is obligated to protect these things and provide due process before taking them away or allowing them to be taken away.
- By knowing about the damage climate change could do and by not taking action, the government has not been doing its job.
3. This case wasn’t originally aimed at Trump. In fact, he’s inheriting it from Obama.
This might sound similar to a story a year or two ago about kids suing Obama. That’s because it actually is that story, just with a new twist.
The lawsuit was originally filed on Aug. 12, 2015, with Obama’s name on the defendant list, but when Trump assumed office, he inherited that position. Our Children’s Trust made the announcement on Feb. 9, 2017.
4. It’s probably going to take a long time to figure this one out.
Kids suing the federal government is unusual, but that doesn’t mean it’s not being taken seriously. In April and November 2016, two judges, Thomas Coffin and Ann Aiken, denied motions from the government to dismiss the cases, which means it has been given the go-ahead, more or less.
Though the plaintiffs want the trial to start this fall, it’ll likely be a complicated legal battle and take years to settle. Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, expects the case could end up at the Supreme Court, according to a Slate article.
5. Trump’s environmental politics might make it easier for the kids in court.
In comparison to Obama’s administration, Trump has been friendlier to fossil fuels and deregulation. He’s also previously called climate change a Chinese hoax. If part of the kids’ case hinges on whether the government has been taking sufficient action against climate change, Trump’s recent actions may be handing them more ammunition.
That said, the case faces plenty of legal hurdles. The Atlantic noted that Michael Gerrard, also from Columbia’s Sabin Center, said he didn’t think the case would pass the Supreme Court. And if they win, it’s not clear what the long-term results would be.
The novelty and potentially broad-reaching implications of a kids’ climate lawsuit are likely to help energize environmental activists or put pressure on the federal government.
After all, it’s not every day that kids take on the federal government.