Washington Youth Win Unprecedented Climate Change Lawsuit

Eight young citizens of Washington state have seen success in their historic campaign to protect their community from climate change and ecological destruction.

On June 23, King County Superior Court Judge Hollis Hill issued a landmark decision in Zoe & Stella Foster v. Washington Department of Ecology, ordering the Washington Department of Ecology to reconsider a petition submitted by the youth.

In June 2014, eight young Washingtonians—ranging from ages nine to 14—formally requested that the state government limit carbon dioxide emissions according to what scientists say is needed to protect our oceans and climate. The Department of Ecology rejected their petition on August 14, 2014, without disputing the underlying scientific bases for their plea. The young petitioners subsequently filed an appeal, arguing that they and future generations have a fundamental right to a healthy environment and that they are faced with increasing harms posed by climate destabilization and ocean acidification.

“The effect of this decision is that for the first time in the United States, a court of law has ordered a state agency to consider the most current and best available climate science when deciding to regulate carbon dioxide emissions,” remarked the youth petitioners’ attorney, Andrea Rodgers, of the Western Environmental Law Center (WELC).

“No court has ever done that before,” Rodgers stressed in a message.

The court directed the Washington Department of Ecology to take necessary steps to protect its citizens from environmental destruction. “The ball is now in [the department’s] court to do the right thing and protect our children and future generations,” Rodgers said.

In its ruling, the court speaks of “the imminent threat of global warming,” citing December report by the Department of Ecology which states:

Climate change is not a far off risk. It is happening now globally and the impacts are worse than previously predicted, and are forecast to worsen… If we delay action by even a few years, the rate of reduction needed to stabilize the global climate would be beyond anything achieved historically and would be more costly.

The court concluded maintaining that “Washington State’s existing statutory limits should be adjusted to better reflect the current science. The limits need to be more aggressive in order for Washington to do its part to address climate risks.”

In its December report, the Department of Ecology also recognized that “we are imposing risks on future generations (causing intergenerational inequities) and liability for the harm that will be caused by climate change that we are unable or unwilling to avoid.”

Current climate science finds that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels must be reduced from the current global annual mean concentration of 401 parts per million to 350 ppm by 2100 in order to achieve climate stabilization and protect our oceans from catastrophic acidification.

“Kids understand the threats climate change will have on our future,” said 13-year-old petitioner Zoe Foster. “I’m not going to sit by and watch my government do nothing. We don’t have time to waste. I’m pushing my government to take real action on climate, and I won’t stop until change is made.”

WELC attorney Rodgers further detailed the significance of the court decision in an email. Washington Governor Jay Inslee was unable to get his climate package through the legislature, she explained. But because Inslee is in charge of the Department of Ecology, this ruling will allow him to direct the agency “to promulgate a rule that would meet his stated goal of putting the state on a path towards climate stability,” Rodgers said.

“This encouraging court decision reminds us that there is still good basis for optimism about legal strategies that aim to require governments to draft an action plan consistent with a more stringent mitigation target than the ones that are commonly discussed,” commented NASA climate scientist Dr. Pushker Kharecha, who worked with the youth on their campaign.

“I hope the Department of Ecology realizes that such a plan would be more achievable than they think in this case, and that they will therefore choose to amend their decision accordingly” Kharecha added.

The youth petitioners acted with the help of Our Children’s Trust (OCT), an Oregon-based nonprofit advocating for a youth-driven legal campaign to establish the right to a healthy atmosphere and stable climate. The organization seeks to pressure governments around the country to address the climate crisis based on the latest scientific research, and to do so within time frames determined by scientific analysis.

“This is a decision of immense national significance,” said Julia Olson, executive director of OCT. “Judge Hill acknowledges the urgent and dire acceleration of global warming, refuses to accept any more bureaucratic delay, and mandates that the state consider and act in just two weeks time on the youth’s scientific evidence that atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide must be reduced to 350 ppm.”

Olson warns that many governments around the world base their policies on old scientific research, using two degrees Celsius or 450 ppm as upper limits that would be catastrophic for the climate.

In an email, the OCT director remarked “This is the first court in the world, of which I am aware, to order that the best and current science on climate stability be used in setting emission reduction policies.”

This win, Olson added, “sends a strong signal to the U.S. judiciary, which should similarly uphold the rights of young American citizens.”

With the support of OCT, the youth will file a new action against the U.S. government in July, building on jurisprudence OCT says it has been establishing for four years.

“The court’s decision brings a feeling of triumph,” declared 14-year-old petitioner Aji Piper. “But I know there is still a lot of work to be done. We may have one a battle, but we’re still fighting a bigger war.”