Soon, King County Superior Court Judge Hollis Hill will issue a ruling in the unprecedented case of seven youth petitioners requesting the Washington Department of Ecology to write a carbon emissions rule that protects the atmosphere for their generation and those to come. The case has an interesting and meaningful history, which is important to understand in anticipation of the ruling. Please see the following quick reference guide to the case so far:
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, the Western Environmental Law Center files a petition for rulemaking with the Washington Department of Ecology. In the petition, the youths argue that under existing law, Ecology has a mandatory statutory obligation to regulate carbon dioxide emissions using best available science to protect the atmosphere as a public trust.
Ecology denies the petition, claiming that it is already taking steps to address climate change. This is despite experts within Ecology asserting publicly that the state is currently not on track to meet the modest greenhouse gas emission reductions enacted by the legislature in 2008 and that urgent action is needed now to drawdown carbon dioxide emissions to avoid catastrophic climate impacts.
Because Ecology’s decision to deny the petition does not comply with the law, the youths appeal the denial to King County Superior Court and the case is assigned to Judge Hollis R. Hill. In its answer, Ecology admits to most scientific allegations in the petition for rulemaking and recognizes that it has the legal authority to regulate carbon dioxide emissions, but argues that it has no mandatory duty to act.
After no public review or comment, Ecology issues a report, “Washington Greenhouse Gas Emission Reduction Limits,” summarizing the current climate science. In the report, Ecology acknowledges “climate change is not a far off risk. Globally, it is happening now and is worse than previously predicted, and it is forecasted to get worse. We are imposing risks on future generations (causing intergenerational inequities) and liability for the harm that will be caused by climate change that we are unable or unwilling to avoid.” Even though Ecology concludes the state’s existing greenhouse gas reductions “need to be more aggressive” and “should be adjusted to better reflect the current science,” Ecology advises the legislature not to update the greenhouse gas reductions and to wait until the international climate talks in Paris.
After briefing and oral argument, Judge Hill orders the Department of Ecology to reconsider its denial of the petition the eight youths filed with Ecology in August 2014, directing Ecology to take into account the current and best available climate science contained in Ecology’s December 2014 Report and the declaration one of the plaintiffs’ experts, Dr. Pushker Kharecha, who works with Dr. James Hansen.
On July 17, 2015, five of the youth petitioners and Attorney Andrea Rodgers meet with Gov. Inslee to discuss the case. Gov. Inslee ends the 90-minute meeting by making it clear that he is taking their requests and their lawsuit seriously, and wants to do everything he can do to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in Washington. The youths formally ask Governor Inslee to direct Ecology to promulgate a rule using their existing authority under the Washington Clean Air Act to regulate carbon dioxide emissions based on best available science.
On July 28, one day before the youths’ in-person settlement meeting with Ecology, Gov. Inslee directs Ecology to write a rule capping carbon emissions, but does not direct the agency to use the best available science when doing so, instead he directs the agency to target the statutory greenhouse gas reductions that Ecology found to be outdated and not based on current science.
Ecology denies the petition for rulemaking a second time, making the same arguments as before, but adding that it is going to promulgate a Clean Air Rule as directed by Gov. Inslee. For the first time, Ecology questions the science presented by the youths, but is unable to identify any alternative scientific prescription to stabilize the climate.
The youth petitioners once again challenge Ecology’s refusal to regulate carbon dioxide emissions based on science and files a brief with supporting testimony from some of the world’s leading climate change and ocean acidification, including Dr. James Hansen, Dr. Richard Gammon, Dr. Ove Hough-Guldburg.
Attorney Andrea Rodgers delivers an impassioned oral argument in King County Superior Court. She focuses on the need for Ecology to use the best available science when regulating carbon dioxide. Outrageously, Ecology’s counsel says “I do not know if there is an inherit right for a healthful environment,” and tells the court that it is up for the legislature to decide.
Now we await Judge Hill’s decision on the matter. We will issue a news release analyzing the decision when it is filed, which we expect before the end of the year.
Andrea Rodgers, Attorney for Plaintiffs, 206-696-2851,
Julia Olson, Our Children’s Trust, 415-786-4825,
Read more about our work to protect Washington’s climate here.
Plant-for-the-Planet connects children around the world as Ambassadors for Climate Justice, planting trees, educating the public, influencing decision makers, and now going to court with expert legal guidance. Children inspire children at Academies, free one-day workshops where children ages 8-14 find their voice speaking out for their future and taking action to create a better world. http://www.plant-for-the-planet.org
Our Children’s Trust is a nonprofit organization advocating for urgent emissions reductions on behalf of youth and future generations, who have the most to lose if emissions are not reduced. OCT is spearheading the international human rights and environmental TRUST Campaign to compel governments to safeguard the atmosphere as a “public trust” resource. We use law, film, and media to elevate their compelling voices. Our ultimate goal is for governments to adopt and implement enforceable science-based Climate Recovery Plans with annual emissions reductions to return to an atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration of 350 ppm. www.ourchildrenstrust.org/
The Western Environmental Law Center is a public interest nonprofit law firm. WELC combines legal skills with sound conservation biology and environmental science to address major environmental issues throughout the West. WELC does not charge clients and partners for services, but relies instead on charitable gifts from individuals, families, and foundations to accomplish its mission. www.westernlaw.org