UPDATE (4 p.m. PT) — Multnomah County is joining a growing movement of legal support for young people suing the government over climate change.
On Friday, the county filed amicus, or “friend of the court” briefs in two cases, Chernaik v. Brown and Juliana v. United States, to support the legal argument that the government has an obligation to protect the atmosphere and the natural environment from climate change because they are public trust resources.
Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury made the announcement alongside several of the young people involved in the lawsuits. She said the county is the first sovereign government to support plaintiffs in both cases – in large part because county leaders feel governments do have a moral and a legal duty to protect natural resources from the impacts climate change, such as record-breaking wildfires and ocean acidification.
“In the face of overwhelming scientific evidence that we are on a runaway train, adults are failing to act,” she said. “These amazing youths have so much of their lives ahead of them and will live with the nightmare of uncontrollable climate change unless we take action now.”
A group of 21 plaintiffs, many of whom are minors, are suing the federal government over its climate change policies in a case that was filed in U.S. District Court in Eugene in 2015. The federal government has repeatedly filed motions to dismiss and delay action on the case, which has slowly made its way to 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
In a similar case, another group of young people are suing the state of Oregon for failing to protect natural resources from climate change. A state appeals court ruled against them in January, but on Friday, Plaintiffs Ollie Chernaik, 18 and Kelsey Juliana, 22, filed a request to have their case reviewed by the Oregon Supreme Court.
Multnomah County’s amicus brief supports the request for the Oregon Supreme Court to review the case.
The plaintiffs’ counsel Courtney Johnson with the Crag Law Center said the Oregon Supreme Court can choose to review the case at its discretion.
“This case will have broad implications for current and future Oregonians and their health, prosperity, and safety,” she said in a statement. “As we ask the Supreme Court to take review, the county’s participation helps show the Court how important this case is.”
Isaac Vergun, a plaintiff in the Juliana v. United States case, said he appreciates the support from Multnomah County and hopes that other counties will offer their support as well.
“Even though lawsuits like these get thrown out, we have local governments, nice, powerful people who are willing to put themselves out there knowing that we are going to be the generation that is going to hold the planet in our hands,” he said.
The young plaintiffs say their lives have already been affected by climate change and their generation will face the consequences of global warming — rising sea levels, more intense storms and less abundant sources of water for drinking and crop irrigation — in the future. They argue the government’s contributions to climate change have violated their fundamental rights, and they want the court to order the government to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
More than a dozen amicus briefs have been filed in support of the plaintiffs from environmentalists, business leaders and several members of Congress, including Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley and U.S. Reps. Peter DeFazio and Earl Blumenauer. All four Oregon lawmakers are Democrats.
Several cases have been brought by youth across the country through the nonprofit group Our Children’s Trust in an effort to address climate change.
The youth-focused climate-change movement will continue to play out next Friday, March 15, when young people in 50 countries are planning a student strike in protest of inaction on climate change.