District Court Dismisses Children’s Climate Suit Brought Under Federal Public Trust Doctrine

By Shelley Welton, Deputy Director and Fellow

The lawsuit of Alec L. and several other young climate change activists was dismissed by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia today. In Alec L. et al. v. Lisa P. Jackson et al., 11-cv-02235 (D.D.C. 2012), five teenagers and children joined the groups Kids vs. Global Warming and Wildearth Guardians to sue several federal agency heads for failure to adequately address global warming.

The plaintiffs proceeded on the theory that the atmosphere is a commonly shared public resource that defendants, as agency heads, have a duty to protect under the public trust doctrine. As relief, plaintiffs asked for an injunction directing the named federal agencies to “take all necessary actions to enable carbon dioxide emissions to peak by 2012 and decline by at least six percent per year beginning in 2013” (Slip. Op. at 5). Defendants and intervenors argued in a motion to dismiss that plaintiffs failed to state a federal claim for relief.

The district court’s opinion rejects plaintiffs’ federal public trust doctrine claim. Relying on the recent Supreme Court decision PPL Montana, LLC v. Montana, 565 U.S. —-, 132 S. Ct. 1213 (2012), the opinion holds that the public trust doctrine is a matter of state, not federal, law. It also explains that even if the public trust doctrine were a federal common law claim, such a claim has been displaced in this case by the Clean Air Act (as was similarly held in the 2011 Supreme Court case American Electric Power Co. v. Connecticut, 131 S. Ct. 2527).

Finally, the opinion expresses what has become familiar judicial skepticism with federal courts developing new law (as opposed to applying existing statutes) in the complicated arena of regulating carbon dioxide emissions. This skepticism may be warranted, but after years of inaction by the elected branches of government, it is no wonder that these young plaintiffs are exploring all possible avenues (including, perhaps, an appeal?).