Guaranteeing the Public Trust

Julia Olson ’97 represents 21 young people between the ages of 10 and 21 who are suing the government for violating their constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property by not protecting their rights to a stable and safe climate.

Olson argues that the government’s permitting, licensing, and even subsidizing carbon dioxide pollution-through fossil fuel emissions-violates the government’s public trust responsibilities to protect natural resources. Since young people and future generations will bear the burden of the most severe climatic disruptions, Olson also argues that the government is discriminating against her plaintiffs, most of whom are too young to vote.

Olson explained that the foundation of her plaintiffs’ lawsuit is drawn from constitutional and human rights law more than environmental law. “The Public Trust Doctrine is at its core a doctrine of intergenerational justice,” Olson said from her office in Eugene, Ore. “And the atmosphere is part of that public trust.”

A timeline dating back to before the 1950s, developed by Olson and her staff, clearly shows how the U.S. government, despite the fact that its own scientists recognized the threat of climate change, took actions that caused increases in carbon dioxide emissions. Thus far, the young plaintiffs have seen only success in the courtroom. In 2016, Olson and her team prevailed against motions to dismiss the case from both the Obama administration and three trade associations representing the fossil fuel industry.

Now, the Trump administration is a defendant. This switch in legal teams resulting from the change in political parties in power and the dramatic shift in perspective on climate change-has caused the current administration’s lawyers a significant headache. The Obama administration admitted many of the significant allegations of the youths’ complaint, especially regarding the science and impacts of climate change. While the Trump administration has not sought to amend those positions, Justice Department lawyers have yet to produce a single document in discovery.

The case, expected to be argued at trial in November, will consider for the first time, as Olson put it, “What are the rights of these 21 young people who will live well into this century? What does our Constitution guarantee to them?” Through their complaint, Olson’s plaintiffs are asking the court to compel the U.S. government to develop and implement a science-based climate recovery plan to return the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide level to a safe 350 parts per million (ppm). Without the implementation of such a plan, the government, she said, is abrogating its responsibility to future generations.

Olson believes her experience at UC Hastings was critical in helping her realize the powerful potential for law to leverage change in the world. She retains strong connections: Professors David Takacs and Dave Owen have sent students to work with her and her colleagues, and Chancellor & Dean David Faigman, an expert on science and the law, is consulting with her legal team on the most effective way to introduce the scientific evidence of climate change into the court.

The lawsuit she filed with the caption Juliana v. United States is set for oral argument before the Ninth Circuit on Monday, December 11, 2017 at 10:00 a.m., in Courtroom One of the James R. Browning United States Courthouse, San Francisco.