OPINION

Juliana v. United States: Changing the Legal System

By Camilo Toruno '21 || Issue 148-16

Youth climate change activists are leading the charge in the case Juliana v. United States, which could have monumental legal implications, says Camilo Toruno ‘21 (Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

A “60 Minutes” segment this past Sunday brought my attention to the Supreme Court case Juliana v. United States.In this lawsuit, 21 young people — whose ages range from 11-22 years old — sued the federal government for refusing to acknowledge climate change during their parents’ lifetimes and unconstitutionally breaking the equal protection clause. In other words, the plaintiffs claim that the federal government’s subsidies of fossil fuels, which enable climate change, are infringing upon children’s constitutional rights of life, liberty and property. While many activists have joined this lawsuit in support of the youth, these plaintiffs were specifically chosen as they were all able to prove that climate change had given them “concrete injury.”


The lawsuit was filed in 2015 and four years later it is still going strong and has overcome the federal government’s many attempts to dismiss it. In fact, the plaintiffs in this case won a key legal battle when U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken ruled that having access to a clean environment is a fundamental right. Although we now have a conservative Supreme Court, making the success of this lawsuit unlikely, the court case is symbolic of two things: the power that young people have in sparking radical societal change and the ability of law to shape and impose itself upon the government.


Kelsey Juliana, a 22-year-old student at the University of Oregon, is the lead plaintiff in this case. Juliana, who had been involved in climate change activism through environmental marches and previous lawsuits against the government of Oregon, recruited other youth and the non-profit organization Our Children’s Trust to enact change on the federal level. In an interview with “60 Minutes,” Juliana says, “This case is everything. This is the climate case. We have everything to lose, if we don’t act on climate change right now. My generation and all generations to come.” I believe this young woman is representative of the power and potential our generation has at our disposal. It might sound corny, but we have the tools to make the future: education, science and most importantly, the law.


While there is great opportunity for our generation to find solutions to the many problems humanity faces, our generation also vests great responsibility when it comes to caring for the world that we live in. It will fall upon us to solve the environmental problems created by previous generations who lived decades and centuries ago. We will have to imagine a future that moves beyond progress and modernity. Put differently, we do not need “more” and “faster.” Instead, we need to move beyond the strict political structures that limit the radical change. Although it might be painful for some to hear this, the United States Constitution is just one of these restrictive features in our current society.


Juliana v. United States cleverly tries to manipulate the U.S. Constitution in its favor by accusing the federal government of unconstitutionally violating the equal protections clause ensrhined within the 14th Amendment. While I certainly think they have a point, I am not sure this argument can be substantiated in the Supreme Court. You may ask, why? Think about it. Did the Founding Fathers know anything about our natural world when they wrote, debated and signed the Constitution? Did they know why the wind blew? Did they know why the sky was blue? Did they understand how pollution affected the natural world? Of course not! This lack of knowledge on the part of the founding fathers is a clear indication that the Constitution is one of the many impediments to enacting necesssary environmental law.


Nature has always been seen as radically “other;” as deficient, mindless and soulless. Western, industrialist societies have risen to global dominance because of an antagonistic relationship with nature. Environmental law was created in the 1960s within this fractured model. Thus, environmental law is now more part of the problem than the solution. While Juliana v. United States certainly tries to tackle the problem of climate change from a different angle than the norm, it is still working within a legislative and legal system that is antithetical to sustainability.


Law is a powerful tool that can be used to solve the climate change problem and enforce sustainability. But in order to do so we need holistic environmental law that is pervasive throughout the entire legal system. At the moment, environmental law is a subset within the overarching subject of law; it is marginal and insufficient. One way to change this is by creating a green constitution in which the natural world has the same rights as people. Ecuador is the first country to acknowledge the rights of nature in its constitution and we should use it as a model for our own country. The Juliana v. United States case is an impressive and inspired campaign against the federal government. I wish it the best and am hopeful some radical change enforcing sustainability will come of it. Nevertheless, our legal system is part of the problem and we must act accordingly.