Attorneys representing the children and teenagers filed yesterday, or are preparing to file, 52 separate lawsuits and petitions based on a novel legal theory: that the government has failed in its duty to protect the atmosphere as a "public trust" for future generations.
As a legal theory, the idea that the environment is a public trust has been around for centuries, and has often been used to protect water and wildlife. For instance, the Supreme Court ruled in 1892 that Illinois lawmakers couldn't hand over a large portion of the Chicago harbor to the Illinois Central Railroad because the government was responsible for safeguarding waterways.
Similarly, that's the reason people usually need government licenses to shoot deer or catch fish. State and federal officials manage wildlife as a public trust to ensure that it remains plentiful.
The idea has never before been applied to the atmosphere, said Julia Olson, an attorney who led the legal team as executive director of the Oregon-based nonprofit Our Children's Trust. But it captured the imagination of 16-year-old Alec Loorz of Ventura, Calif., who is helping run the legal campaign and has spent the past year finding teenagers across the country to sign onto the lawsuits.
"The legislative and executive branches of our government have failed us," Loorz said in an interview yesterday. "People have been trying to push for real change at the legislative level for a long time, and nothing has worked. That's why we're going after it through the judicial branch of government."
Among the cases is a federal lawsuit (pdf), filed late yesterday in district court in San Francisco, that names U.S. EPA and the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Energy and Interior as defendants. The lawsuit asks the government to stop greenhouse emissions in 2012 and reduce them by 6 percent per year after that.