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Latest 28 June 2024

A US climate case could help tackle global heating in the UK

We’re backing young Americans in their long-running fight for fundamental rights that could protect the environment for future generations.

In 2015, 21 young Americans filed a lawsuit in Oregon saying that the US government’s role in fuelling the climate crisis violated their constitutional rights. Almost a decade later, they’re still fighting to have their case heard.

At the heart of the case is the allegation that the US government “willfully ignored” the dangers of burning fossil fuels, which violated their constitutional rights to life, liberty and property, and failed to protect public trust resources. 

If successful, the lawsuit could have huge impacts on energy policy all over the world and boost legal action in other jurisdictions. 

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Which might explain why the US Department of Justice under Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden has spent the last nine years aggressively filing motions to delay or dismiss this landmark case. Last year a US district court ruled the case could go to trial, but in May a panel of judges agreed to a government request to strike it down

These young activists have gathered support from across the globe. Good Law Project has joined many others in signing an amicus brief – a legal intervention backing their appeal.

The brief argues that courts all over the world make binding legal declarations over whether government actions are lawful, and that these declarations can be a powerful way of addressing a complaint – an issue which goes to the heart of this case.

Another issue is whether the US government is breaching its obligations under the Public Trust Doctrine. This is an old principle under English common law which says the state has a duty to safeguard natural resources and protect them for current and future generations. 

As the US district judge Anne Aiken said last year, there is “no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society”. 

We’ll be watching whether these brave young people can force the US government to protect their future. And if their success can open up avenues for legal action to tackle the climate crisis here in the UK. 

It’s time for governments around the world to stand up to the fossil fuel industry and make a just transition to clean energy. We’ll keep holding ministers to account and fighting for a fairer, greener world.