Young activists sue U.S. government over climate change policy

Eight children are asking a Seattle judge to find Washington state in contempt for failing to adequately protect them and future generations from the harmful effects of climate change, part of a nationwide effort by young people to try to force action on global warming.

These kids claim the government has failed to protect them from harmful effects of climate change

Eight Seattle children are suing the state for failing to protect them from the harmful effects of climate change. (Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press)

Eight children are asking a Seattle judge to find Washington state in contempt for failing to adequately protect them and future generations from the harmful effects of climate change, part of a nationwide effort by young people to try to force action on global warming.

The petitioners, between 12 and 16 years old, are heading back to court Tuesday afternoon to ask a state judge to step in and order the state Department of Ecology to do a better job of curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

The case is part of a nationwide effort led by the Oregon-based non-profit Our Children's Trust to force states and the federal government to take action on climate change.

This month, a federal judge in Eugene, Oregon, allowed a similar climate change case against President Barack Obama's administration to proceed. In that lawsuit, 21 activists ages 9 to 20 argue that the federal government's actions violate their constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, and the government has violated its obligation to hold certain natural resources in trust for future generations.

The juvenile climate activists in Seattle brought their petition in 2014 asking the court to force state officials to adopt new rules to limit carbon emissions based on the best available science. 

In November, King County Superior Court Judge Hollis Hill denied their appeal but affirmed some of the children's arguments, saying the state has an obligation to protect natural resources for future generations.

Need to act 'decisively'

"Petitioners assert and this court finds, their very survival depends upon the will of their elders to act now, decisively and unequivocally, to stem the tide of global warming by accelerating the reduction of emission of GHG's before doing so becomes first too costly and then too late," Hill wrote in November.

At the time, the judge noted that the state's Department of Ecology was already working on meeting that obligation by writing new rules for greenhouse gas emissions ordered by the governor.

The plaintiffs again asked the judge to step in after Ecology in February withdrew its proposed clean air rule to make changes. Ecology was in the process of writing new rules but Hill in April ordered the agency to proceed with its rulemaking and come up with a rule by the end of 2016.

The Seattle children contend the clean air rule that the state adopted in September — which caps emissions from the state's largest carbon polluters — doesn't do enough to protect young people, and that the state is violating prior court orders by not doing more. 

The state says in court documents that there's no basis for finding Ecology in contempt. Ecology complied with court orders by adopting its clean air rule requiring power plants, refineries and others large polluters to reduce emissions by an average 1.7 per cent each year, Assistant Attorney General Katharine Shirey wrote in a response filed with the court Friday.

"Taken together all the things Ecology have done to date aren't protecting the rights of these kids, and that's why they need to do more," said Andrea Rodgers, an attorney representing the young petitioners. "There's no dispute that they have not fulfilled their responsibility."

The state's lawyer, Shirey, said in court documents that the court didn't direct Ecology to adopt any particular rule, nor did the court say what should or should not be in the rule. She also wrote that the plaintiffs' claims amount to a challenge of Ecology's clean air rule, which should be heard in Thurston County Superior Court.