A King County Superior Court judge has reversed a ruling that gave the Washington State Department of Ecology the opportunity to decide when to cut statewide greenhouse gas emissions. Because of a lawsuit filed by eight Washington State kids, Judge Hollis Hill has ruled that the threat of climate change is so urgent that the state must be placed on a court-ordered deadline to hold polluters accountable now.
The decision was the first of its kind. Earlier this year, Judge Hill found that the state had a constitutional responsibility to protect its citizens—including the children who filed the lawsuit—but that dictating an additional greenhouse gas rule-making process wouldn't be necessary. After all, in July of last year Governor Jay Inslee had directed Ecology to come up with a rule to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
That changed when Ecology withdrew the draft rule in February of 2016 in order to take more time to confer with stakeholders. When that happened, the kids' lawyer, Andrea Rodgers, asked the judge to change the earlier ruling in favor of the state based on two criteria: one, that the state had misrepresented the facts, and two, that extraordinary circumstances deemed it necessary.
Judge Hill didn't think that Ecology committed fraud or misrepresentation by committing to a rulemaking process and then withdrawing a draft rule later. But she did agree with the kids' lawyer that climate change constituted extraordinary circumstances.
"Ecology doesn't dispute that current science establishes that rapidly increasing global warming causes an unprecedented risk to the earth, to the land, sea, and atmosphere, and all living plants and creatures," Judge Hill said. Then the judge used Ecology's own words to demonstrate the "extraordinary" circumstances, reading back a quote from 2014 warning of "serious economic and environmental disruptions."
Judge Hill continued:
The reason I'm doing this is because this is an urgent situation. (...) These children can't wait, the polar bears can't wait, the people of Bangladesh can't wait. I don't have jurisdiction over their needs in this matter, but I do have jurisdiction in this court, and for that reason I'm taking this action.
Now the state must come up with a rule to cut greenhouse gas emissions by the end of 2016. In addition, it must make recommendations to the legislature next year to update the state's greenhouse gas reduction goals based on the most current science.
In order to demonstrate how climate change posed an immediate threat to Washington citizens—and how the state had failed to protect them from it—lawyer Andrea Rodgers cited the Quinault Indian Nation's plan to relocate its ancestral village of Taholah away from the coastline because of rising sea levels. "People think that this is something that's going to happen down the road when our friends, and our family, and our people in Washington are literally being relocated," Rodgers said.
As for the judge's ruling on extraordinary circumstances, "It's not climate change that's the extraordinary circumstance, it's that this agency hasn't done what it's legally obligated to do for almost 30 years," Rodgers told me after the courtroom let out. "And [Judge Hill] recognized that a court has a responsibility to step in and protect the rights of young people that are being harmed by climate change. This is world-changing and it's amazing."
The kid plaintiffs and their friends inside the courtroom were similarly stoked.
"I think it's our biggest victory so far," 12-year-old Athena Fain said.
"I mean, [Ecology] are our 'elders,' so to speak, and they're supposed to guide us and help us, and it kind of feels like we're guiding them to help us," 14-year-old Gabe Mandell added. "So we're totally thankful that amazing Judge Hollis Hill ruled in our favor."
A spokesperson from the Department of Ecology stressed that the state was already taking climate change seriously. "We're already working on an aggressive schedule trying to put this policy in place, and we're going to stay on that schedule," Ecology spokesperson Camille St. Onge said. "It's our top priority as an agency. We understand how vital it is to protect our air, and our water, and our land for future generations."
UPDATE: Governor Jay Inslee released a statement on Judge Hollis Hill's ruling.
This case is a call to act on climate, and that call is one that has been a priority for me since taking office. Our state is helping lead the way on climate action in our country.
It appears the court is essentially reaffirming the need to do what we've already committed to doing, which is putting a policy in place by the end of the year that reduces carbon pollution in Washington state.
In a way it is gratifying that the court has also affirmed our authority to act, contrary to the assertion of those who continue to reject action on climate change and ocean acidification. Hundreds of people have participated in the creation of our state's Clean Air Rule and the draft will be out in just a few weeks. People can also view the webinar held earlier this week in which over 500 people participated.
I'm fully committed to making sure we do our part to protect our air and water for our children in the years ahead.