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11.11.5a Piedmont seventh-graders participate in the global strike for climate change in San Francisco on Sept. 20, 2019.

Reed, Andrew

Andrew Reed photograph, Piedmont seventh-graders participate in the global strike for climate change in San Francisco on Sept. 20, 2019.

The court case Juliana v. United States began in 2015 when 21 young people, ranging in age from 8 to 19, sued the federal government for its role in contributing to climate change. The suit was dismissed in 2020 and an appeal denied in early 2021; as of summer 2021, a settlement was being discussed. If the case had succeeded, the court would have required the federal government to create a plan for greatly decreasing the nation's carbon dioxide emissions to stabilize the atmosphere at or below 350 parts per million of CO2 by the year 2100, an internationally agreed-upon goal. The Juliana plaintiffs worry that without such a shift, their lives (and those of yet-to-be-born generations) will be severely compromised by climate change. For over four years the Juliana plaintiffs successfully maintained their case by arguing that the federal government's actions (or inactions) related to carbon dioxide emissions have threatened their constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property. Some of these plaintiffs, for instance, allege that they have had to leave their homes due to repeated flooding in low-lying areas, or due to a scarcity of freshwater. How did the plaintiffs use the fight for climate change as a civil rights issue, analogous to racial justice or gender equality, that would require federal action? This court case is just one example of the many ways that young people throughout the United States and around the world are demanding action on climate change. How do the facts you read in this excerpt support the Juliana plaintiffs' argument that their constitutional rights protecting life, liberty, and property have been harmed? What has the federal government done, or not done, that made the Juliana plaintiffs seek to hold the government responsible for climate change? What specifically did the Juliana plaintiffs want to stop the government from doing? Why do you think these youth decided to turn to the judicial branch of the government to address climate change, rather than the legislative or executive branches?
The excerpt is part of the argument presented by the Juliana plaintiffs to the court in their effort to substantially change federal policy regarding the use of fossil fuels. The Juliana plaintiffs argued that the federal government is responsible for damages caused by climate change because the government has known about the harmful effects of carbon dioxide emissions for over 50 years but has continued to promote and allow the extensive use of fossil fuels, which increase carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Though the federal government has been aware of the threat of climate change since at least 1965, and the United Nations began addressing the challenge in 1972, the Juliana plaintiffs argued that not enough is being done to limit the negative impacts of a changing climate. Disappointed with legislative and executive responses to climate change, the plaintiffs took the unusual step of turning to the courts to demand federal action. Their case aimed to prove that the federal government's actions in support of fossil fuel–based energy have directly harmed plaintiffs' lives and well-being. This source can help students understand how climate change is being conceived of as a civil rights issue, one in which plaintiffs ask the federal government to protect its citizens' rights. Throughout the arguing of this case, the federal government did not dispute that climate change is happening, that it is likely to get worse, or that human activity has contributed to the warming climate. Instead, the federal government argued that not any one entity can be held liable for causing climate change because the "cause" of climate change is so widespread. Nor does it believe that the plaintiffs could get the relief they seek, because the district court cannot exercise authority over what the government terms "national energy production, energy consumption, and transportation." The defendant argued that Congress and the White House are the appropriate branches for addressing climate change. You may want to point out the many groups that young people have formed to protest climate inaction, such as Fridays for Future, the Sunrise Movement, and a youth branch of Extinction Rebellion. Students are likely familiar with the climate work of the young Swedish activist Greta Thunberg.

Photograph of students holding signs at climate change rally.