Today, young citizens went to King County Superior Court to defend their right to a healthy earth and sustainable future. They hope that Judge Dean Lum will rule in their favor in what experts have called one of the most remarkable legal actions that has the potential to halt human-induced climate change.

On May 4, 2011, seven young plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against the State of Washington, No. 11-2-16008-4 SEA, to compel the State to develop a comprehensive plan to prevent further increases in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and to compel government action in reducing CO2 emissions. Though the plaintiffs are young, they have been fighting to protect the environment for many years. Some, like 14-year-old Jacob, spear-headed recycling and green building initiatives at their schools and others, like 16-year-old Anna, became leaders in environmental organizations, such as the Evergreen Chapter of the National Honor Society. 

Their drive in entering the lawsuit also comes from the alarming research of our nation’s top scientists. According to leading climate scientist Dr. James Hansen, “the science is crystal clear—we must rapidly reduce fossil fuel carbon dioxide emissions if we are to have a chance of protecting Earth’s natural systems for these young people.”

The Washington lawsuit is part of a larger, innovative climate litigation strategy­­—the international iMatter Trust Campaign. As part of this campaign, youth plaintiffs launched legal actions in 49 states and the District of Columbia, in addition to a federal lawsuit.

The young plaintiffs have based their lawsuit on the Public Trust Doctrine, which requires sovereign governments to manage and protect vital, natural resources for the common benefit of its citizens. By evoking this doctrine, the plaintiffs are not asking for monetary or punitive damages. They are instead petitioning the court to require that the State of Washington develop a climate recovery plan that will protect Washington’s resources for future generations.

There is evidence that Washington is particularly vulnerable to climate change and must develop and implement an informed plan to protect the State’s public trust resources. In fact, Governor Christine Gregoire has acknowledged that “Washington is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, and without additional action to reduce carbon emissions, the severity of the impacts will negatively affect nearly every part of Washington’s economy and environment.” (Washington Executive Order 09-05 (May 21, 2009)).

According to Andrea Rodgers Harris, attorney for the plaintiffs, “In Washington, our Supreme Court just ruled that our State’s educational funding system is broken and that kids are entitled by law to an education under our Constitution.  Likewise, our State has an obligation to our youth to ensure the protection of natural resources on which their security and livelihood depends.  That is the essence of the public trust, and it is broken when it comes to climate.”

In September of last year, the State of Washington filed a motion to dismiss the case, but also conceded that there was merit in the youths’ argument. In the case, the State admits:

[S]cientific projections indicate that increasing GHG concentrations in the atmosphere are projected to change the climate which would impact human beings’ natural environment and that identifying the optimal timeline to reduce emissions and address impacts is important to minimizing the impacts. (Answer of Defendants to Plaintiffs’ Amended Complaint for Declaratory & Injunctive Relief, NO. 11-2-16008-4 SEA, June 24, 2011).

To protect Earth’s natural systems and our way of life, the consensus among scientists is that average global surface heating must not exceed 1°C and CO2 concentrations must decline to less than 350 parts per million this century (we are currently over 390 ppm). To accomplish this reduction, Dr. James Hansen and other renowned scientists conclude that carbon dioxide emissions need to peak in 2012 and decline by 6% per year starting in 2013.

If this is not accomplished, the predicted human-induced impacts of climate change in Washington will be severe. The University of Washington Climate Impacts Group estimates that temperatures in the Pacific Northwest will increase by 3.2 °F by 2040. Consequences of increased temperatures include decreased snow pack, decreased water availability for agriculture, and reduced freshwater salmon habitat. Hotter temperatures coupled with decreased precipitation will pose challenges to human health and increase the risk of wildfires, which threaten the State’s forests, ecosystems, and rural populations.

Despite the plaintiffs’ formidable scientific and legal claims, the state is asking that the public trust case be dismissed. Today, state attorneys will raise jurisdictional defenses in an attempt to prevent the court from hearing the substance of the case.  Ultimately, it will be Chief Judge Lum, who will consider the arguments and decide whether to give these young citizens a chance to state their case on the merits and move one step closer to a real climate recovery plan.

“If our government doesn’t act quickly to plan for my future, fossil fuel emissions will dictate the future of my entire generation,” says Adora Svitak, one of the seven youth plaintiffs.  “I’m not old enough to vote yet, but I have rights.  I hope the court will do the right thing and hear our case.”

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