Growing up in Fairbanks, Alaska, Nathan Baring has seen the signs of a warming world all around him. The winters have begun to lose their infamous chill. Thawing permafrost is shifting the ground beneath his feet. And some years, there isn’t even enough snow to ski.
“If you have eyes and you walk out your back door, you can see the changes that have taken place over only my short childhood,” said Baring, 19, who already has six years of climate activism under his belt.
So when lawyers asked Baring if he’d like to sue the federal government for failing to tackle climate change, he readily agreed.
“When I started, I didn’t have the right to vote,” Baring said. “This legal avenue was what I saw as the most effective way to put myself out here.”
The case, Juliana vs. United States, alleges that the U.S. government has violated the rights of 21 young Americans by permitting — and in many cases, subsidizing — the continued use of fossil fuels that cause climate change.
Juliana is the first lawsuit to argue that there’s a constitutional right to a safe and livable climate. Experts say it’s an ambitious and unprecedented tactic, and many were surprised that the case has made it this far.
“It’s a novel legal claim,” said Ann Carlson, a professor of environmental law at UCLA.
The suit has seen its share of twists and turns since it was filed in 2015. It survived numerous attempts by the Obama and Trump administrations to have it thrown out, although the courts removed the president from the list of defendants in 2018. The case still targets a slew of executive branch organizations such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy and the Office of Science and Technology Policy.
A trial was originally slated to begin in federal district court in February 2018 but was postponed until the fall. Then the government made an eleventh-hour plea to the U.S. Supreme Court, asking the justices to dismiss the case. They declined, but encouraged the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to consider the government’s objections.
“The Trump administration has pulled out all the stops, legally, in trying to prevent the trial,” said Michael Gerrard, the director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University who is not involved in the suit.
Now its fate lies with three judges in Portland, Ore., who will decide if the case has enough legal merit to proceed to trial. On Tuesday, lawyers for Baring and the other young plaintiffs will try to convince them that it does. (The hourlong hearing will be livestreamed on YouTube starting at 2 p.m. Pacific time.)
For starters, they will have to refute the government’s argument that the plaintiffs don’t have standing to sue. To do that, they must show that the plaintiffs have been harmed by the government’s actions (or in this case, its inaction), and that the court can do something to remedy the problem.
The plaintiffs have a long list of injuries.
When a massive storm dumped heavy rains on southern Louisiana in 2016, Jayden Foytlin’s house flooded with storm water and sewage. For months afterward, she and her family slept in the living room of their damaged home because the bedrooms weren’t safe. (The house is still undergoing repairs.)
Others have suffered from respiratory problems because of increased wildfire smoke and longer pollen seasons. Many cite threats to their family farms, to staple foods such as salmon, and to the landscapes where they hike, camp and hunt.