Capable of sustaining human life

Posted 6/12/19

In “Juliana versus United States,” 21 young people sued the federal government, alleging that their constitutional rights of life, liberty and property are being violated by the …

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Capable of sustaining human life


In “Juliana versus United States,” 21 young people sued the federal government, alleging that their constitutional rights of life, liberty and property are being violated by the government’s continuing actions and policies that contribute to climate change and its failure to effectively address the consequences. The crux of their argument is the concept of the public trust: the idea that the government has a legal obligation to maintain a climate capable of sustaining human life, just as it has a recognized legal obligation to protect other essential public trust resources for the benefit of future generations.

Since the case was first filed in 2015, district courts have denied several motions to dismiss by both the Obama and Trump justice departments. The Trump Administration has stepped up its resistance, filing numerous motions to dismiss, stay the case, delay the process of discovery and leap-frog over the District Court to have the case reviewed by the Supreme Court. Last week, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Portland, Oregon heard oral arguments by both sides on whether the case should proceed to trial.

One consequence of all these delaying efforts is that climate scientists, medical researchers, economists and legal scholars have continued to compile overwhelming arguments in support of the case, much of which is collected in 15 impressive “friend-of-the-court” briefs submitted in March 2019. Information on the health impacts already occurring are contained in an extensive brief filed on behalf of 15 public health, mental health and pediatric experts and organizations, and more than 75 prominent physicians and researchers from the nation’s most prestigious medical schools, schools of public health and research institutions. Their evidence includes exhaustive data on climate-related health risks that affect children more severely than adults, in part because their bodies are still developing and they experience higher exposure to air, food and water per unit of body weight. Among the most startling statistics is a 25% increase in infant mortality rates on extreme heat days; more than 10,000 incidents of heat-related death and illness among high school athletes each year; and newly-identified connections between extreme heat and mental impairment, bacterial resistance to antibiotics, higher rates of congenital heart disease and other adverse pregnancy outcomes. Allergies and asthma are discussed, as well as the long-lasting physical and mental health challenges caused by weather-related disasters like hurricanes, prolonged droughts and wildfires.

The brief of 15 interfaith organizations and ministries represents thousands of congregations, clergy and religious practitioners of many faiths across the county. It lays out the moral imperative for climate action and provides a compelling argument for application of the public trust doctrine, that “government cannot substantially impair or alienate resources crucial to the public welfare,” as an expression of constitutional rights that is also deeply embedded in the religious beliefs of many faiths.

In my favorite of the 15 amicus filings, a distinguished group of 77 historians refutes the government’s claim that there is no precedent (“history or tradition”) for a “fundamental right to a stable climate.” They do this by tracing key ideas from the Colonial era that informed the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, arguing that the foundational values of our democracy include an awareness that “…soil degradation, deforestation and other developments could destroy citizens’ ability to support themselves and to uphold their social and political obligations,” and that each generation has a responsibility to conserve and pass on to future generations an environment capable of sustaining life. Quoting sources ranging from John Calvin and Adam Smith to Locke, Burke, Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Frederick Law Olmstead and Rachel Carson, the authors illuminate the connecting thread between what the founding fathers recognized as the stable aspects of the natural world necessary to foster “life, liberty and property,” and the attributes we now recognize as intrinsic to a stable climate system.

I have always believed that a love of nature and a profound connection to the land were embedded in our national values. Seeing these ideas laid out in the words of our foundational scholars, economists, philosophers and leaders inspires me with new hope for the preservation of our republic.


Overview of “Juliana versus United States”:

The amicus briefs:

More about children’s vulnerability to climate-related health risks:


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