THERE’S A TRICKY AND CONTROVERSIAL QUESTION that has long interested the human rights community: if all humans are equal and deserving of their basic human rights, doesn’t that include people who aren’t born yet? In other words, do we have just as much of a duty to protect the rights of future generations as we do to protect the rights of people alive today?
21 kids in Eugene, Oregon, think so. According to a new lawsuit filed by the non-profit Our Children’s Trust on their behalf, their rights have been infringed by the federal government, which, they say, has valued the current adult generation higher than the younger generations by refusing to act on climate change and by saddling the kids with the problems that were caused — and weren’t fixed — by the adults. This, they argue, is a violation of the Fifth Amendment of the US Constitution, which grants all US citizens the right to due process and equal protection under the law.
The US Justice Department has filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, and now a federal judge must decide if the children have a case. And while you might think that the kids don’t have a chance, there are some prominent groups that are nervous about the lawsuit: several lobbying firms with ties to the oil and gas industry have joined as co-defendants.
The best case scenario of this case is that the plaintiffs win, and the American courts tell the government that doing too little to stop climate change is not only unacceptable, but that it is a violation of basic human rights. That may be a strong enough argument to undercut the obfuscation and pseudoscience pushed by the US anti-climate movement, which has been slowing progress on fighting climate change for decades now. And it’s not unprecedented: in fact, there’s a legal standard that goes back to Roman times called “public trust” that says that governments are required to ensure that their citizens have access to the resources they need to survive generations down the line.
Will the kids be successful? That remains to be seen. Some judges have struck down similar cases in the past. But it’s looking like a very reasonable legal path to getting the country to take larger steps towards preventing the worst effects of climate change. But even if the kids fail in their lawsuit, it’s pretty comforting to know that they are the future.