Investigative Question

How should individual rights and liberties be balanced with the common good in matters related to land as well as water, air, and other natural resources?

Among the persistent issues facing the United States and California, in particular, is how to balance individual rights and liberties with the common good in matters related to land as well as water, air, and other natural resources. Students examine case studies that embody the struggle to find this balance and consider the spectrum of factors that influence policy decisions about natural resources and natural systems (see appendix G for Environmental Principle V). Students learn that many conflicts over environmental issues result from competing perspectives involving individual rights and the common good, an illustrative example of the reciprocity between rights and obligations. (See Education and the Environment Initiative curriculum unit “This Land Is Our Land,” 12.2.)

This set examines the court case Juliana v. United States, in which 21 young people are suing the federal government for its role in contributing to climate change in order to compel the government to lower national carbon dioxide emissions. The Juliana case argues that the federal government is responsible for damages that climate change has caused and will cause. The suit charges that the government has known about the harmful effects of carbon dioxide emissions for over 50 years and has nevertheless continued to promote or allow the extensive use of fossil fuels that increase carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. If the case succeeds, the court would require 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.

This inquiry set can be approached in a few different ways. It can be used as a study of the relative authority and responsibility of the three branches of government for the protection of natural resources. It can also be used to analyze citizen activism for a pressing issue — climate change — and the process by which citizens seek to change law. Finally, it can be used to examine present and historical governmental approaches to addressing environmental quality, and the means of effecting changes in those approaches.

The Juliana plaintiffs point to the fact that the US government has long understood the linkage to human actions. Source 5 is the 1965 President’s Science Advisory Committee’s report that identified several forms of environmental pollution resulting from industrial pursuits. In addition to the actions causing visible water and air pollution, the federal report identified the dangers of carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel use. The report called for action to address all of these threats, asserting that “the land, water, air and living things of the United States are a heritage of the whole nation. They need to be protected for the benefit of all Americans, both now and in the future.”

Significantly, the federal government took serious steps to deal with conventional and toxic pollution in the 1970s. In 1970, Congress revised and strengthened the Clean Air Act, which set standards for industrial and vehicle emissions and required states to develop implementation plans that significantly improved the nation’s air quality. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency — the federal agency tasked with enforcing the Clean Air Act — reports that emissions of major air pollutants dropped by about 70 percent in the decades following the 1970 Clean Air Act (though not carbon dioxide emissions). Meanwhile, in 1972 amendments to what later was known as the Clean Water Act authorized the federal government to set pollution control standards for industrial wastewater and to establish a permit system to regulate discharges into the nation’s waterways. Due to the Clean Water Act, billions of pounds of pollutants have been kept out of our waters, which helps make many waterways fishable and swimmable that had for decades been unsafe. The Clean Water Act has also helped preserve wetland areas that are critical for protecting against flooding and in providing important animal habitat.

Despite this progress, however, the federal government did not make comparable strides in reducing carbon dioxide emissions. And recently, President Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, a document signed by nearly every nation to lower greenhouse gas emissions such as carbon dioxide. Currently, the United States alone is responsible for 15 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions.
This set includes an excerpt from the US Constitution, federal data on climate change, arguments from the plaintiffs and the defendants in the case, two amicus briefs (one for each side of the argument), and a 2015 press release from the Netherlands Supreme Court explaining its ruling in favor of an environmental organization that sued the Dutch government to lower its carbon dioxide emissions. Guiding questions for each document encourage students to consider the factual record compiled by the plaintiffs in the Juliana case; the appropriate allocation of responsibility among the various branches of government to address climate change; the unique position of youth, who are both particularly susceptible to the negative effects of climate change and are too young to vote; and the scope of federal regulations needed to curb emissions of CO2.

Students today are well aware of the threat of climate change and understand that this will be an ongoing issue that their generation must address. This set is meant to help students understand the issue in more depth, though additional class research could be done in order to identify the specific regulations deemed necessary by the Paris Agreement and scientists and others studying climate change. This set is also meant to enable students to consider the authority and responsibility of different parts of our democracy — including citizens themselves — to address and solve one of the most vital issues of our day.

Teacher background:

This “First Amended Complaint for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief,” filed in district court, represents the major arguments of the youth plaintiffs in Juliana v. United States; thus, it’s important for students to understand its various points. By drawing student attention to verbs and important modifiers, this literacy activity highlights the many mentions of past and present actions, inactions, and responsibilities attributed to the US government, and the future actions the plaintiffs demand of the government.


  1. Provide context.

    a. Orient students to the basic facts of the Juliana v. United States case, including that it is an ongoing lawsuit brought against the US government in 2015 by a group of youths.

    b. Explain to students that this literacy strategy will help them notice patterns of words in the text, leading to a deeper understanding of the youths’ arguments against the federal government.

  2. Interpret and discuss text.

    a. Read the student handout directions with students, drawing their attention to the way the text has been divided into three sections and the bolded references to the defendants (the government) throughout the text.

    b. Have students work through the first section of the handout (following along with the first section of the text itself), preferably in pairs or small groups to maximize opportunities for all students to verbally process ideas, to focus on paraphrasing the federal government’s past actions and inactions. If your students need it, you can model the process of filling in the first line on each chart. You can also underline for students an example of a reference to a threat to life, liberty, and property (a task students will do throughout the whole text). Debrief this section with students before moving on, using the opportunity to reinforce students’ understanding of words important to the argument in this section of the text (e.g., willfully, deliberately).

    c. After pointing out how, in the second section of the text, the already circled verbs is and bears shift away from the territory of past actions and into that of present responsibilities, ask students to work through the second section of the handout to summarize the plaintiffs’ argument about the state of responsibility. Debrief and reinforce any key vocabulary that may be challenging for some (e.g., bears).

    d. Ask students to work through the third section of the handout/text. Debrief and reinforce any key vocabulary that may be challenging for some (e.g., cease).

    e. Have students write a response to the last question on the handout, summarizing the entire argument on which the case is built. Debrief this written response in pairs or as a class. This is also a good opportunity to discuss why the youth involved in the case chose to address their concerns to the judicial branch of government.

  3. Extend the learning. To understand the argument of the defendant, students could go through a similar process with the Source 4 text of an opening brief, marking the participants (e.g., plaintiffs, rights, Constitution), verbs attributing actions to them (e.g., have, demonstrate), and important modifiers (especially, for this source, the repetition of not and cannot).


12AD.10 Rights and Responsibilities in the Era of Climate Change Student Handout

12AD.10 Rights and Responsibilities in the Era of Climate Change Teacher Key

  • The Library of Congress. The Library of Congress’ Primary Source Analysis Tool supports an inquiry model of instruction by asking students to first observe, then reflect, then question. Their customizable tool includes specific prompts for student interrogation of books and other printed materials, maps, oral recordings, photographs and paintings, and many other types of primary sources.

  • The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). NARA has developed a vast collection of document analysis worksheets, ready for classroom use. Their website offers teachers a wide collection of customizable tools – appropriate for working with photographs, maps, written documents, and more. NARA has also customized their tools to meet the needs of young learners, and intermediate or secondary students.

Climate change is a growing concern for many students. This set is meant to help students understand the science behind a changing climate and to explore some of the ways in which citizens their age are addressing the issue.