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Juliana v. United States

By Ethan W.

In 2015, a group of 21 people with ages ranging from 11 to just 23 sued the federal government, beginning the ongoing case Juliana, et al. v. United States of America, et al., which has the potential to be among the most important events in United States environmental history and law ever. The plaintiffs allege that the government’s knowledgeable failure to address the issue of climate change—and its active support of industries which account for much of climate change’s existence—violates their constitutional rights to life and liberty.

The group of plaintiffs was assembled by the environmental law organization Our Children’s Trust and its director Julia Olson, who is now leading the case against the government. According to 60 Minutes’ March 3rd story about Juliana v. United States, Olson began forming her case eight years ago. It is based on the 5th Amendment’s guarantee that nobody can “be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

Since its filing, the government has repeatedly attempted to dismiss the case on various grounds but has so far failed. Oregon District Court Judge Ann Aiken decided in November 2016 to deny the prosecution’s motion to dismiss the case. Her decision included this unprecedented statement: “Exercising my ‘reasoned judgment,’ I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society.”

Julia Olson is the director of Our Children's Trust and the leader of the lawsuit filed against the United States government.

As reported by The New York Times, in November of 2018, the Supreme Court decided against the prosecution not to halt the case, although some justices expressed concern with the broad nature of the plaintiff’s claims of constitutional rights. Another attempt by the prosecution to end the case before it goes to a trial is currently underway, meaning that the case has yet to go before a jury. If it does, as Julia Olson expressed in her 60 Minutes interview, the jury is likely to be persuaded by the overwhelming evidence that the government’s support of the oil industry and its inaction in helping solve climate change violated the interests and perhaps even legal rights of the American public. The government’s actions, Olson argues, will particularly affect members of younger generations who will live to see the worst effects of climate change.

Despite the continued challenges Julia Olson and the 21 young plaintiffs in Juliana v. United States will surely face, the potential for their case to force extraordinary positive change has given many hope for the possibility of a government-led and policy-based solution to climate change.


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