Climate Change Litigation Update: "Children's Crusade" Case Against the United States Goes Forward Page: 1 of 2
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CRS Reports & Analysis
Climate Change Litigation Update: "Children's
Crusade" Case Against the United States Goes Forward
Recently, an Oregon federal district court judge denied the U.S. government's motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought by a
group of 21 individuals, all age 20 or younger, and other plaintiffs seeking to compel the federal government to reduce
carbon dioxide emissions. The case, Juliana v. United States, is part of the so-called "children's crusade" -a campaign
of state and federal lawsuits and rulemaking petitions related to climate change coordinated by an Oregon nonprofit,
Our Children's Trust, on behalf of American youth. While only a preliminary ruling, the 54-page opinion has prompted
some media outlets to speculate whether the "kids"' lawsuit may potentially force a change in the United States' policy
toward climate change through litigation.
Lawsuits implicating issues related to climate change are not a new phenomenon in the United States or internationally.
Litigation in the United States (discussed in this report) has largely focused on addressing climate-related issues through
existing federal environmental statutes, like the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Clean Air Act. But
efforts to address climate issues through common law (as opposed to statutory) claims have been largely unsuccessful.
Mostly notably, in American Electric Power Co.. Inc. v. Connecticut, the Supreme Court held that a group of plaintiffs
could not rely on the federal common law of public nuisance to seek a decree setting greenhouse gas (GHG) emission
standards on the operators of fossil fuel-fired power plants because the Clean Air Act "displaced" those claims. The
Juliana case, which focuses on duties that allegedly arise under the Constitution and the common law, may potentially
indicate that at least some courts may be willing to consider climate-related claims outside the context of existing
What Did the Court Decide in Juliana?
The Juliana case centers on an allegation that federal officials promoted policies that contributed to "the increase in the
atmospheric concentration" of carbon dioxide, while knowing of the alleged dangers of those policies. The plaintiffs ask
the court to order the federal government to "implement an enforceable national remedial plan to phase out fossil fuel
emission" and "stabilize the climate system," among other requests for relief. There are multiple causes of action in the
complaint, which the district court organized into two categories: (i) alleged violations of plaintiffs' substantive due
process rights to life, and liberty, and property in the Constitution and (ii) common law violations of the public trust
doctrine (discussed below). The district court did not rule on the merits of these claims, nor did it issue a finding that the
government bears legal or factual responsibility for increased carbon dioxide emissions. But the court did conclude that
it has subject matter jurisdiction over the case and that the plaintiffs alleged facts that, if proven to be true, could entitle
them to relief.
The Juliana court's ruling is far from a guarantee of a victory on the merits. In the past, the "children's crusade" had
success in at least one state administrative rulemaking petition, but it has not obtained a judgment on the merits on a
constitutional or common law claim, and one court dismissed a case after denying a preliminary motion to dismiss.
Even if the Juliana plaintiffs succeed on the merits at the district court level, that court's conclusions of law would be
reviewed de novo if an appeal were filed-meaning no deference would be given to the district court's legal
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Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service. Climate Change Litigation Update: "Children's Crusade" Case Against the United States Goes Forward, report, January 1, 2017; Washington D.C.. (https://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc1042415/m1/1/: accessed March 26, 2019), University of North Texas Libraries, Digital Library, https://digital.library.unt.edu; crediting UNT Libraries Government Documents Department.