A group of children are suing the US government for failing to protect them against climate change, in a case which could force the authorities to rapidly decarbonise the American economy.
The unprecedented lawsuit accuses successive administrations of knowing the science of climate change but not taking enough action to protect US citizens from the damage it causes.
The case, first filed in 2015, was initially dismissed by most legal observers as hopeless, but in 2016 a federal judge, Ann Aiken, stunned the government by refusing its attempt to end the case.
Ann Carlson, a professor of environmental law at UCLA, said this was a major development as no court had ever previously upheld the idea the government had a duty to provide its citizens a stable and safe environment.
“That’s a big stretch for a court,” she told CBS News. “There’s no constitutional provision that says the environment should be protected.
“[But] I think that Judge Aiken actually does a very good job of saying it’s not radical to ask the government to protect the health, and the lives and the property of this current generation of kids.”
In her ruling, Judge Aiken said: “Exercising my ‘reasoned judgment,’ I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society.”
The Trump administration has repeatedly tried to have the case thrown out, forcing the legal battle all the way to the Supreme Court, which last year rule unanimously in the favour of the 21 young plaintiffs and against the government.
The leading plaintiff, Kelsey Juliana, is now a student at the University of Oregon and said her direct experience of wildfires in Oregon showed how dangerous unchecked climate change would be.
“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 the generations to come,” she told CBS News, which covered the case as part of its 60 Minutes programme.
Others in the 21-strong group of youths are much younger, including 11-year-old Levi Draheim.
He lives on a barrier island in Florida which is just one mile wide and barely above sea level. He said he fears climate change will soon force his home underwater.
“I fear that I won’t have a home here in the future,” he told the programme.
Julia Olsen, a lawyer from the charity Our Children’s Trust which is co-ordinating the case, said her team had uncovered evidence dating all the way back to the Lyndon Johnson administration in the 1960s which showed the government knew how dangerous greenhouse gas emissions could be on the climate.
But despite every president for 50 years knowing burning fossil fuels was dangerous, the plaintiffs argue the government has failed in its duty to protect their life, liberty and happiness by not taking more drastic action to curb climate change.
Professor Carlson said if the children manage to win their case it could dramatically change the landscape in America.
“It’d be massive, particularly if they won what they’re asking for, which is get the federal government out of the business of in any way subsidizing fossil fuels and get them into the business of dramatically curtailing greenhouse gases in order to protect the children who are the plaintiffs in order to create a safe climate.
“That would be enormous.”
The government denies this, arguing the country’s energy policy cannot be decided by a single judge in Oregon but must instead be governed by elected officials in Congress and the White House.
The case is scheduled to return to court in June for more arguments over whether a trial should go ahead.
However, some legal experts have said that even if Judge Aiken does ultimately rule in favour of the children, the Supreme Court is likely to overturn the judgement, as it has previously ruled it was not for the judiciary to decide what was an acceptable level of pollution.