Protecting Washington’s Atmosphere as a Public Trust

In 2014, on behalf of several youth climate activists and working in collaboration with Plant for the Planet, Climate Change for Families and Our Children’s Trust, WELC requested the Washington Department of Ecology write a meaningful emissions rule to protect the climate for younger and future generations. The youths argued that under existing law, the Department of Ecology has a mandatory statutory obligation to regulate carbon dioxide emissions and to put the state on a path towards climate stability by the end of the century.

The Department of Ecology denied the petition for rulemaking, claiming that it was already taking steps to address climate change, even though its own experts and others have stated publicly that the state is currently not on track to meet the modest greenhouse gas emission reductions enacted by the legislature, let alone to put the state on a path towards climate stability. Because the Department of Ecology’s decision to deny the petition does not comply with the law, we have appealed the denial to King County Superior Court, setting into motion a landmark climate case.

In a her decision, Judge Hill declared “[the youths’] very survival depends upon the will of their elders to act now, decisively and unequivocally, to stem the tide of global warming…before doing so becomes first too costly and then too late.” Highlighting inextricable relationships between navigable waters and the atmosphere, and finding that separating the two is “nonsensical,” the judge found the public trust doctrine mandates that the state act through its designated agency “to protect what it holds in trust.” The court confirmed what the Washington youths and youths across the nation have been arguing in courts of law, that “[t]he state has a constitutional obligation to protect the public’s interest in natural resources held in trust for the common benefit of the people.”

When the Department of Ecology wrote, then withdrew a proposed rule, we went back to court to argue for a court order. Judge Hill agreed with our case so fervently she issued a surprise ruling from the bench ordering Ecology to write a climate rule before the end of the year, and to report to the Washington legislature on the issue in the next session (news release here). Now, Gov. Inslee must do the right thing and use the best available science to write a strong rule that protects our climate — officially ruled a public trust resource — for the sake of the youth petitioners and their peers. Please sign our petition to Gov. Inslee telling him to rely on the best available science for the forthcoming rule.

Most recently, in the absence of a climate rule from the Department of Ecology, Judge Hill ruled that the case can again move forward, now with a constitutional climate rights claim that adds the state of Washington and Gov. Jay Inslee as defendants. We’ll update this page as the case progresses.