A King County Superior Court judge ruled on Monday that the eight youths who sued the state over its alleged failure to responsibly address climate change will now have the chance to put climate science on trial.
The eight Our Children's Trust petitioners—ranging in age from pre-teen to 16—say that the state has neglected its constitutional duty to protect its young citizens' futures from the effects of climate change. Their argument rests on the idea that even though Governor Jay Inslee has made climate much of his legislative focus, his administration has failed to change the state's eight-year-old greenhouse gas emissions goals to reflect the best available science.
The case hearings for the youths' case against the state department of Ecology have stretched back more than a year. At first, the youths focused on the Department of Ecology, arguing it was the agency's duty to create a rule cutting greenhouse gas pollution commensurate with the reductions climate science said were necessary. King County Superior Court Judge Hollis Hill agreed that Ecology must take action on climate, but she refused to hold Ecology in contempt of court; the agency was, after all, already creating a rule to cap greenhouse gas emissions.
But the youths, represented by Andrea Rodgers of the Western Environmental Law Center, argued that Ecology's rule reducing emissions from the state's biggest polluters by 1.7 percent a year still didn't reflect what the science said was needed. Yet changing state targets to reflect the best science isn't just Ecology's job; changing the law also requires coordination from Governor Inslee and the state legislature. Judge Hollis Hill agreed that the youths should be able to bring a case against the state and the governor, as well as show their proof for doing so in a court trial.
"The Court takes this action due to the emergent need for coordinated science based action by the State of Washington to address climate change before efforts to do so are too costly or too late," Hill wrote.
Responding to a request for comment on the judge's decision, Camille St. Onge, a spokesperson for Ecology, said that the agency had already submitted a report to the legislature that recommends more stringent greenhouse gas limits. Jaime Smith, spokesperson for the Governor's Office, responded by listing Inslee's efforts to fight climate change—efforts other than changing the state's existing greenhouse gas emissions goals.
"His education funding proposal this year includes a carbon tax which, in the governor’s words, provides a 'two-fer' of helping us achieve two things we all want: funding for schools and cleaner air," Smith wrote in an e-mail. "The Legislature has an important role to play, as well."
To the Our Children's Trust petitioners, having climate scientists testify on the necessity of stricter emissions limits in open court already represents a win.
"To this point, the decisions on what [emissions targets] to pursue have been made by politicians," Julia Olson, executive director of Our Children's Trust and lead counsel for a parallel climate case in federal court, told The Stranger. "And they're not science-based decisions that will protect our children or our ocean. The kids will have their day in court to show the inadequacy of government action, and [the decision] gives them the opportunity to put the best experts on the stand on what the state's emissions limits should be."
The state trial—as well as the federal case against the current Obama administration and the upcoming administration of the president-elect—will be heard in the new year.