Climate protesters in Puget Sound urge climate action.Despite Washington State's recent history of climate action, advocates say it isn't enough, leading to the latest youth lawsuit. Photo credit: David Ryder/Getty Images

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By Karen Savage

Thirteen young people are suing the state of Washington for violating their constitutional rights by failing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and protect them from the impacts of climate change.

The plaintiffs say the state is preventing them from enjoying the same rights, benefits and privileges of past generations and is violating the state’s public trust doctrine.

In the lawsuit, filed Friday in Kings County Superior Court, the plaintiffs allege that the state of Washington, Gov. Jay Inslee and several state agencies have known for a long time that younger generations are living in “dangerous climate conditions” but have acted with “shocking deliberate indifference and abdication of duty” by exacerbating the climate crisis and delaying meaningful action to reduce greenhouse gases.

Several of the plaintiffs in the suit were also plaintiffs in Foster v. Ecology, which asked the court in 2014 to force the Washington Department of Ecology to consider a petition to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The court acknowledged the youth had the constitutional right to live in a healthful environment with the benefit of public trust resources and ruled that the state was not adequately reducing its greenhouse gas emissions.

The case resulted in the adoption of Washington’s Clean Air Rule in 2016, however plaintiffs say the rule took too long and did not go far enough. It  exempts the state’s only coal-fired generating station and other big polluters and the plaintiffs say it is not aggressive enough to protect future generations from the dire consequences of climate change.

The rule’s compliance requirements were also suspended in December as the result of a ruling by the Thurston County Superior Court.

“Defendants have a systemic policy, custom and practice of authorizing projects, activities, and policies that cause emissions of dangerous and substantial levels of GHG pollution into the atmosphere,” wrote Andrea Rogers, an attorney with Our Children’s Trust, who is representing the young plaintiffs in the new case.

A spokesperson for Inslee’s office said officials  are still reviewing the complaint.

“It is worth noting that Gov. Inslee has spent a considerable part of his life and career dedicated to fighting climate change, fighting for renewable energy, clean air and clean water,” she said, adding that several bills currently before the state legislature would strengthen these efforts.

Representatives from the other defendant agencies did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“This lawsuit that we’re filing should open the Washington government’s eyes to the fact that they have to do more than tell the public that we need to use cleaner energy. They need to stop causing climate change and use clean energy,” said 16-year-old plaintiff India B., who recently had to evacuate her home due to wildfires made worse by climate change.

The plaintiffs are seeking an injunction that would force Washington to develop an enforceable and science-based state climate recovery plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and protect the climate. Plaintiffs are also asking the court to monitor the state’s progress toward meeting the plan’s goals similar to court monitoring in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education civil rights decision and the Brown v. Plata prison overcrowding case.

“This lawsuit gives the Washington state government a chance to take the lead and commit to the citizens it serves and the lives it must protect,” said 17-year-old Aji Piper, who is also one of 21 young plaintiffs who are suing the federal government in Juliana v. United States.

After filing the suit, Rogers sent a letter to Inslee on behalf of the plaintiffs, expressing their willingness to work with him, but stressing that time is of the essence.

“These youth have no more time to barter and plead with those whose metric is political feasibility instead of constitutional duty and scientific necessity,” said Rogers in the letter.

Climate change is already taking its toll on Washington State. Last summer wildfires raged across the state, burning more than 300,000 acres, filling the air with a smoky haze and making breathing difficult, particularly for those with asthma or other respiratory conditions. Sea levels and temperatures are rising, leading to acidification of Pugent Sound, threatening the state’s shellfish industry.

“Climate change is impacting my ability to continue participating in my family’s traditions – things like salmon fishing, digging camas roots and picking berries for food,” said 13-year-old plaintiff Kailani S., a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.

“Our land is being destroyed by climate change. I’m simply calling on the state of Washington to do its job to protect my future, my culture’s future, and generations to come,” she said.

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