Climate change is crashing into America’s courts. As the science gets more conclusive, the reality more sobering, and the predictions more dire, the executive and legislative branches have refused to act. That leaves the judicial branch.
In theory, courts are a good place for climate science. Unlike legislative bodies, where bills based on science can be derailed just because a few people say they don’t “believe in” climate change, the courts have evidentiary standards. If something’s real, it’s real. The facts accepted by 98 percent of scientists worldwide represent pretty convincing evidence.
In the past couple of years, activists and attorneys and even state governments have been trying to use the courts to force action, protect those who take matters into their own hands, and wring payouts from offending companies.
These climate cases are taking a number of different forms. And they’re lined up to the horizon.
First there are civil-rights cases, which fault the government for not protecting American citizens.
In a case now on hold in federal court in Oregon, 21 young people are suing the government for failing to curb climate-change-causing CO2 emissions and thus violating their “fundamental constitutional rights to freedom from deprivation of life, liberty and property.” Juliana v. United States was filed in 2015 under Barack Obama and has survived years of challenges. With the trial originally scheduled to begin October 29, the Supreme Court—which previously ruled unanimously in July that the trial could proceed—has now issued a temporary stay while it considers a last-minute challenge from the Justice Department. Attorneys plan to call a spectacular array of expert witnesses, including the former NASA climate scientist James Hansen, who first testified before Congress in 1988 that climate change was already underway.