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A Group of Washington Teens Took the State to Court Over Climate Change — and Won

Climate change activists scored a pair of court victories this week, and cases are pending in several European countries that could compel governments to take more drastic measures to cut emissions.

by Rob Verger
Jun 26 2015, 9:05pm

Photo by Jorge Silva/Reuters

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A court in Seattle has handed a legal victory to a group of young petitioners asking that the state of Washington do more to fight climate change.

Eight children, between the ages of 11 and 15, filed a petition last year to the state's Department of Ecology, requesting that the agency initiate a process of rulemaking to regulate greenhouse gas emissions in Washington.

The petition specifically calls for a goal of getting the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere down from the current level of more than 400 to 350 parts per million by the year 2100. The document also references the personal experiences of the plaintiffs, asserting examples of the ways in which the young Washington residents are already seeing the effects of climate change.

"What we asked is that [the Department of Ecology] implement their existing statutory authority to promulgate a rule regulating carbon dioxide emissions," Andrea Rodgers, of the Western Environmental Law Center, and the plaintiff's attorney, told VICE News.

The Department of Ecology denied the petition last year. But the King County Superior Court ordered them on June 23 to consider it again, and that they must also consider a climate change report that the department had itself issued after they rejected the petition, as well as review other current climate science, Rodgers said. The Department of Ecology has until July 8th to decide what to do.

"The next two weeks are critical, becauseby July 8, they need to decide whether or not to grant our petition for rulemaking," Rodgers said. Now is the time for the state's governor, Jay Inslee, to act, she said. "Hopefully Governor Inslee will do the right thing, and tell his agency, and his staff, 'Get to work and start regulating carbon dioxide emissions,' instead of sitting around and hoping that somebody else will do something about it."

A spokeswoman for the state's Department of Ecology told VICE News that they didn't have anything to say yet on the issue, but that they were happy that people were "engaged with climate change."

"It's a very nice win for the plaintiffs," Michael Gerrard, who direct the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School, told VICE News. However, he noted that what comes next is unclear. "We don't know whether the state will change its standards after it reviews the evidence."

The court decision in Washington came just a day before a much bigger ruling in the Netherlands, when a court said on June 24 that in order to ensure the health of its citizens, the Dutch government must cut greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent.

Related: Netherlands ordered to cut carbon emissions by a quarter

While Gerrard downplayed the legal significance of the decision in Washington state, he said the court case in the Netherlands has huge import.

"I wouldn't call it legally pathbreaking," Gerrard added. "Court orders that administrative agencies consider new data are not rare." Nonetheless, he called the decision a "positive step."

"The Dutch case, if it survives appeal," Gerrard said, "will be one of the most important climate change decision ever rendered, and I would say it already is the most important climate change decision rendered outside of the United States."

That's because, he says, it's the first time any court — in the United States or elsewhere — has ordered a government to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The case in the Netherlands had, at its center, the idea that the Dutch government has a "duty of care" to protect its citizens from the adverse effects of climate change, Gerrard says.

A case like it in Belgium is currently underway, and Gerrard says that one is coming down the pike in Norway, too.

"There's been discussion of this kind of [case] for several years, in a number of different countries," he added. "Now that the somebody has actually won one, I think that that's going to embolden lawyers in a number of other countries to try [to take a similar strategy]."

Gerrard added that it will be worth keeping on eye on the Netherlands to see how — and if — they are able to reduce the country's emissions to the court-ordered levels. Ideally, he says, that won't happen by the nation simply bringing in "dirty" electricity from outside its borders.

"If they can really pull it off," he added, "that then does become a model for other developed countries." 

Related: The presidential candidate with a plan to run the US on 100 percent clean energy

Follow Rob Verger on Twitter: @robverger

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