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Juliana v. United States: Climate Lawsuit Struggles to Reach Court

While many Americans are concerned about climate change in the United States (U.S.), not every citizen is taking concrete action. However, Kelsey Juliana, of Eugene, Oregon, has advocated and taken legal action for the environment since she was ten years old. Arguably her most significant step of activism was in 2015 when she and twenty other young adults submitted their Constitutional Climate Change lawsuit against the United States government. In Juliana v. United States, twenty-one plaintiffs argue that the U.S. government’s contribution to fossil fuel extraction in addition to insufficient environmental laws deny Americans their life, liberty, and property guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution’s Due Process Clause. 


The initial case sought remedial measures from its defendants for the effects they caused (or their impact on the climate crisis), specifying that each indicated governmental department was expected to contribute to the clean-up. The First Amended Complaint for the case argues how these measures are necessary to rectify and prevent further physical, psychological, emotional, and even spiritual damages that complainants have suffered due to climate change and the government’s ignorance or willful inaction 


Juliana argues that the defendants have continued to “permit, authorise, and subsidise fossil fuel extraction, development, consumption and exportation”, producing large amounts of carbon dioxide and subsequently reaching a dangerous level that infringes on the complainants' rights. At the time of its filing, all twenty-one complainants were young adults, and the case also argues that young citizens are discriminated against through the country’s actions, as the generation who will be disproportionately affected by climate change 


After nine years of motions and appeals from the Department of Justice, the case was finally taken up by Judge Ann Aiken of the Oregon District Court on 29 December 2023. Previously, in 2020, the government dismissed the case with the majority ruling that the courts did not hold power over the federal government in regard to ordering the development of a decarbonising plan. In 2021, the plaintiffs requested and were granted a modification of their complaint, which limited its intended relief to a declaration of violation of the youths’ rights which allowed it to be taken up this past December. 


However, the day before trial dates were set to be sent out, the Department of Justice expressed its intent to file a Petition for Writ of Mandamus, a tactic used previously by the Department of Justice on the case. This would subvert the case and prevent a trial once more. The Department of Justice also filed a motion to stay the case, which the plaintiffs’ attorneys will issue a response to.


While the case remains somewhat stagnant at the moment, the need for climate action and accountability is ever-evident. As of 2022, The U.S. accounted for 13.5 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions, ranking second only below China. The sizable U.S. contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions begs the question of whether it should be held under additional pressure to address the issue. 


As of 2023, a staggering 74 per cent of Americans supported their nation’s role in international efforts addressing climate change, such as the United Nations’ (UN) Paris Agreement. According to the Pew Research Center, only 37 per cent of Americans indicate that dealing with climate change should be a top priority of the U.S. government, ranking climate change seventeenth out of twenty-one nationally surveyed issues. Although international efforts such as the UN’s Paris Agreement are in place to address these issues, Juliana v. United States aims to hold the U.S. federal government accountable within a domestic frame.


The case of Juliana originating in Oregon is not entirely uncommon. Americans living in the Pacific Coast including Oregon, are more directly affected by climate change, and thus, more likely to stress its impact. Increasingly more Americans will begin to experience the effects of climate change, and will desire action from their government. If the Juliana v. United States plaintiffs won their case, this could set a precedent for further climate-driven lawsuits in the U.S.,  globally signifying the importance of utilising the courts as an environmental tool.


Juliana v. United States underscores a trend in American youth’s concern and desire for action to address climate change. In a 2022 poll, 59 per cent of younger generations expressed their anxiety in regard to climate change, with more than half agreeing with the belief that “humanity is doomed”. Climate change is an issue that has been left in the hands of today’s youth, challenged by the different views of previous generations in positions of power who are unlikely to experience its effects. 

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