The Future Is Now Relevant In American Courts

There’s a new tactic for environmentalists using the court system to change the world: argue that the government has a responsibility to protect people. The argument environmentalists can use is broadly known as “public trust” and how it relates to certain institutions and what they do. It is basically the notion that we a citizens entrust our government to keep us safe for now and in the future; by not protecting the environment they are endangering us now and for generations to come.

This public trust tactic has been used in other countries and now it’s winning in the USA. Let’s hope that more and more courts begin to understand that we need to act today to save tomorrow.

In 2008, Wood unveiled a novel strategy for climate activists to use the public trust as a legal tool. She called it “atmospheric trust litigation” and began giving dozens of talks about it. Prior to that, the public trust doctrine, when invoked in court at all, usually was seen through the lens of wildlife and access issues. Wood argued that the public trust doesn’t end at the earth and water, but also includes the atmosphere. And since the government is required to preserve resources for posterity—today’s youth and subsequent generations—it should be legally required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to ensure a healthful and pleasant environment in the future.

In 2011, environmental attorney Julia Olson formed the Eugene, Oregon–based nonprofit Our Children’s Trust to coordinate with and support law firms that, working pro bono, have filed a flurry of lawsuits based on Wood’s ideas. In all, there have been 18 state and federal climate-change cases with adolescents as plaintiffs. The cases all claim breach of the public trust and try to force states to implement plans for emissions reductions based on science. “They’re all alleging that their futures are imperiled and that [governments are] violating their public trust rights because government continues to promote the fossil fuels regime that is destroying the climate they need for their survival,” says Wood.

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Thanks to Delaney!

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