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The Right to A Healthy Planet: Reviewing the Impact of Juliana v. United States

The Right to A Healthy Planet: Reviewing the Impact of Juliana v. United States


The Netflix documentary, Youth v. Gov, describes a true story in which twenty-one children file a lawsuit against the United States for their inaction to address and respond to the issue of climate change. The plaintiffs claimed that the government’s actions in exacerbating global warming directly violated their unalienable constitutional rights to live in a safe and healthy environment. The groundbreaking case even advanced all the way to the Ninth District Court under the name Juliana v. United States


Although the majority of the plaintiffs stemmed from different parts of the country, each possessed a unique story relating to how the government’s disregard for the environment affected their personal lives. For instance, Jamie Butler, a member of the Tangle People Clan, spent most of her life on the Navajo Nation Reservation in Arizona. However, due to climate-induced problems, Butler and her family moved off the sacred land as fresh drinking water supplies diminished. Her situation demonstrates how climate change directly affects the lives of individuals, especially those living within reservation lands. Furthermore, the youngest plaintiff in Juliana v. United States, Levi D., vividly described how flooding on the barrier islands of Florida became increasingly detrimental, forcing his family to relocate further inland to evade potential crises. 


As stated by Sarah Adams-Schoen, an environmental law professor at the University of Oregon, the plaintiffs were, “Representing the diversity of American youth affected by the climate crisis—including Black, Indigenous, white, biracial, and LGBTQ youth—the plaintiffs were activists, students, artists, musicians, and farmers.” The striking geographical and ethnic diversity of the plaintiffs allowed for an accurate representation of youth around the country affected by climate-induced problems. Many of the other plaintiffs shared stories similar to those of Jamie and Levi, arguing that the government should address the damages resulting from the climate crisis. 


Unlike other climate cases, Juliana v. United States was different in that “It is a case based on a fundamental constitutional right of young people and future generations to a healthy and stable climate.” The case marked a defining moment in American history as the relationship between the constitutionality of the government’s actions in relation to climate-related issues had never been questioned in a court of law. However, in order for their case to be viable in court, the plaintiffs needed to ensure that the case met the requirements of having legal “standing.” For the plaintiffs’ lawsuit to have standing, the case must show proof of injury and be able to be “traced to the challenged action of the defendant.” Additionally, to have standing the action being challenged – in this case the government’s lack of action in combating climate change – must possess the ability to be “redressed” if the court rules in favor of the defendants. In other words, if the court decides to rule in favor of the young plaintiffs and fix their negligence, then the problem will be solved. Therefore, the plaintiffs ultimately sought to prove that the government’s inaction toward solving climate change brought about personal injury to them and that the government could redress the problem by altering its actions. While demonstrating personal injury in court proved simple as many of the plaintiffs had devastating personal stories like that of Jamie and Levi, the problem of redressability of the issue by the government held much difficulty. From the standpoint of the government, no one action would sufficiently correct the issue of climate change and; therefore, ruling in the plaintiffs’ favor did not hold legal standing. Despite all the challenges faced in court, the young plaintiffs advanced the case all the way up to the district court of the United States.


Since August 12th, 2015 – the same day that the lawsuit was filed against the government – Julianna v. United States faced massive setbacks in court which resulted in many delays and motions to dismiss the case. For example, multiple attempts by members of the Department of Justice (DOJ) to motion to stay or dismiss the case are reflected in the amount of time that has passed since the lawsuit’s inception. Currently, as of June 1st, 2023, the case awaits further trial while government officials continue to dismiss the case. On a more optimistic note, the case Held v. Montana, a climate-related case also sponsored by Our Children’s Trust, won in state court against the state of Montana. In a similar fashion to Julianna v. United States, Held v. Montana featured young plaintiffs suing their state government for supporting fossil fuel extraction and violating their state constitution. Unlike other states that lack environmental clauses in their state constitutions, Montana’s constitution has a provision that ensures the well-being of the environment by stating that, “All persons born free and have certain inalienable rights. They include the right to a clean and healthy environment.” Therefore, the plaintiffs argued that by extracting fossil fuels and further contributing to the problem of climate change, the government was violating their state constitution. The state’s decision to rule in favor of the plaintiffs in Montana marked a decisive win for climate activists all around the country, providing some hope for the plaintiffs in Julianna v. United States.


In the words of Vic Barrett, a plaintiff in Juliana v. United States, “Climate change isn't just about temperatures and weather, it's about people. Our earth will be here for millenniums; it's up to us to decide if humanity will be too." Ultimately, the political, social, and environmental implications of Julianna v. United States not only hold major consequences for generations of Americans but also demonstrate the power of the youth voice in government.


For an in-depth summary of the timeline of the case Julianna v. United States, check out the following resource: https://www.ourchildrenstrust.org/juliana-vus#:~:text=Current%20Status%3A,on%20the%20path%20to%20trial.

Check out this interview with the main two plaintiffs of the landmark climate case Held v. Montana: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AiZfYgf9aVM








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