By Bobby Magill
An environmental group and two Pennsylvania children filed suit against the Trump administration Monday, accusing the federal government of using “junk science” to reverse federal climate policies and knowingly increasing the “damages, death and destruction” that result from climate change.
The suit, filed by Philadelphia’s Clean Air Council and the two children, asks the U.S. District Court to stop any Trump administration action that would increase greenhouse gas emissions and would make the effects of climate change worse.
The case builds upon an Oregon federal court case, Juliana v. United States, which was filed in 2015 by a group of 21 children asking the court to recognize a stable climate as a constitutional right and force the government to cut carbon emissions. That case also inspired proposed legal action on behalf of six Portuguese children that would try to force 47 European countries to cut their climate pollution.
The Clean Air Council case takes aim at what it describes as the Trump administration’s goal to deconstruct the administrative state: reversing federal regulations, casting doubt on established climate science and repealing numerous Obama administration climate policies, including the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan.
The lawsuit says the Trump administration’s climate policy rollbacks rely on “junk science,” which are part of Trump’s “war on facts.” The suit cites 115 of President Trump’s tweets denying established climate science or calling it a hoax and numerous other administration statements countering the accepted scientific consensus. One of those statements was made by White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, who said in May that the government will no longer fund “crazy” climate action.
The administration has also sent a dramatically smaller contingent to the latest United Nations meetings to discuss the implementation of the Paris Climate Agreement, which kicked off Monday in Bonn, Germany. They are the first meetings since Trump announced the U.S. would withdraw from the agreement, and his representatives are instead reported to be promoting a continued reliance on fossil fuels and nuclear power.
The administration continues to make those arguments despite the Friday release of the latest National Climate Assessment, which concluded unwaveringly that climate change is largely human-driven, is occurring swiftly and is an increasingly severe threat to human health and welfare.
The Clean Air Council lawsuit alleges that the Trump administration is knowingly ignoring those dire warnings, and its climate policy rollbacks violate the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment and the Public Trust Doctrine, which requires the government to manage public resources for the common benefit of current and future generations.
In a statement, Our Children’s Trust, which filed the Juliana case, said the Pennsylvania case is taking legal theories it pioneered and applying them to a narrow set of facts related to specific climate policy rollbacks.
Robert Routh, a Clean Air Council staff attorney, said that while the Juliana case argues the government has never sufficiently exercised its duty to protect the public from climate change, this case takes a different angle.
“We’re arguing that the government has a duty to not knowingly endanger the public,” said Routh.
Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, said the case tells a compelling story that the government is deliberately putting people at risk.
“They’re asking the courts to declare that the that the Trump administration can’t roll back climate regulations or rely on its vision of scientific reality,” Burger said.
“It’s not the same relief that the plaintiffs are seeking in the Juliana case,” he said. “They’re not asking for specific relief in the sense of a specific standard to be employed. Just stop the federal government across the board from rolling back regulations with the effect of increasing greenhouse gas emissions.”
Carroll Muffett, president of the Center for International Environmental Law, said that the Obama administration’s climate action was insufficient for fully addressing the impacts of climate change, but it provided a baseline. That level of protection, he said, cannot be reversed.
“The Trump Administration continues its campaign to eviscerate vital climate protections and destroy the scientific tools needed to assess, reduce, and respond to climate risks,” Muffett said in a statement. “From undermining the Paris Agreement to dismantling vital climate satellites to jettisoning guidance on climate and infrastructure, the defendants have demonstrated a reckless disregard for the lives, livelihoods, and rights of U.S. residents and people around the world. In so doing, they have created a clear violation of fundamental rights that can and should be urgently addressed by the courts.”
An EPA spokesperson said the agency would not comment on pending litigation.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of the Clean Air Council attorney. He is Robert Routh, not Ruth.