The attorney from the U.S. Department of Justice had never seen anything like it: Under a Pacific Northwest drizzle last March, hundreds of people gathered on the steps of the federal courthouse in Eugene, Oregon, waving signs, chanting, and cheering. Some of those rallying had arrived as early as 4:30 A.M.; others had driven for hours to get there. A woman from Portland passed out homemade cookies decorated like Earth. “You’ve got quite a crowd here,” the government counsel, Sean C. Duffy, told the plaintiffs’ lead attorney, Julia Olson. “I don’t think we’re going to start on time.
“Inside the courtroom, federal magistrate judge Thomas Coffin prepared to hear arguments in Kelsey Cascadia Rose Juliana et al. v. United States of America et al., a lawsuit alleging that the government’s failure to meaningfully address climate change violates young people’s constitutional rights to due process and “life, liberty, and property.” On one side, Our Children’s Trust, a scrappy public interest law group that had brought together 21 youths aged 8 to 19 to press the claim that inaction on climate change represents an intergenerational injustice. On the other side, the U.S. government, joined by Big Oil and other major industrial interests, making a motion to dismiss the case.
The lawsuit, filed in 2015, was at its earliest stage, and already it had become a proxy battle in the larger fight over climate. The Global Catholic Climate Movement, an international network including Pope Francis, had filed an amicus brief in support of the kids’ case. The American Petroleum Institute and the National Association of Manufacturers were backing the government’s position. Activist-author Naomi Klein called it “the most important lawsuit on the planet right now.”
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