Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee is being challenged by young people in his state over climate actionDespite Gov. Jay Inslee's support for climate action, young people in Washington State say the state's policies do not protect their future. Photo credit: Karen Ducey/Getty Images

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By Karen Savage

While a youth-led climate lawsuit continues making its way through federal court, a state-level suit filed by 13 young people against the state of Washington was dismissed by a judge on Tuesday.

The case, Aji P. v. State of Washington, is one of several suits filed in state courts by young people claiming the states are violating their constitutional rights by perpetuating an energy and transportation system dependent on fossil fuels.

But King County Superior Judge Michael Scott sent this one to an early defeat, ruling that these issues should not to be resolved by a court, but are political questions best addressed by the legislative and executive branches.

Andrew Welle, co-counsel for the young plaintiffs, said they would appeal.

“The United States Supreme Court recently ruled that similar claims against the federal government must advance to the trial stage, affirming that the judiciary has a duty to resolve constitutional claims of this nature,” Welle said. “Given the urgency of climate change and the important constitutional issues involved, the political branches of government cannot be immune from liability for the constitutional climate crisis of their own making.”

The suits being pursued at a state level are hoping to follow in the footsteps of Juliana v. United States, a constitutional rights case by 21 young people against the federal government that is scheduled for trial in U.S. District Court in October.

The Washington suit asked for an injunction to force the state to develop an enforceable and science-based climate recovery plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and protect the climate. If granted, the court was asked to monitor the state’s progress toward meeting the plan’s goals, similar to court monitoring in the landmark civil rights decision Brown v. Board of Education and the prison overcrowding case, Brown v. Plata.

The young people in Washington were hoping to follow the success of the young plaintiffs in Foster v. Ecology. That ruling in 2014 recognized the right to a healthy environment and led to the adoption of Washington’s Clean Air Rule in 2016. Despite that victory, the new suit  alleges that the state continues to allow dangerous levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

“On a day when the sun in Seattle is shrouded in smoke from wildfires, the youth plaintiffs are devastated that Judge Scott declined to give them an opportunity to present their constitutional claims in a court of law,” said Andrea Rogers, senior staff attorney for Our Children’s Trust, which supported the suit.

Our Children’s Trust said that given the “pronounced departure from proper judicial procedure,” it would issue a formal statement on Wednesday.

“By deferring to the Executive and Legislative branches of government that have affirmatively placed these plaintiffs in harm’s way, without an appropriate legal analysis, the court has unfortunately chosen not to engage to protect the rights of these plaintiffs, to their detriment,” Rogers said.

Air quality alerts have been issued for much of Oregon and Washington due to wildfires that have burned a combined total of more than 467 square miles in the two states.

“This summer alone, increasingly dangerous wildfires throughout the United States have destroyed communities and families, polluted and clouded our air, and taken human lives,” said 17-year-old Wren Wagenbach, a plaintiff from Seattle.

“I haven’t been able to leave the house without my inhaler this week because wildfire smoke has settled in Seattle. This is not the environment I believe any American deserves.”