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U.S. District Court Dismisses Youth Climate Change Action Against the United States

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania dismissed a climate change lawsuit against the United States, the President, the Secretaries and Departments of Energy and of the Interior, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and its Administrator (collectively: United States). [Clean Air Council v. United States, ___F.Supp.3d___, Case No. 17-4977 (E.D. Pa. Feb. 19, 2019).]


 Factual and Procedural Background

Clean Air Council, a member-supported environmental organization, and two minors sued the United States, seeking a declaration that the United States cannot take certain actions to increase the frequency and intensity of life-threatening effects of climate change under the due process clause and the public trust doctrine. Plaintiffs alleged the United States has known for fifty years that climate change presents a clear and present danger to the health and welfare of its citizens and an immediate threat to the plant. The minors further alleged they suffered allergies and asthma which were exacerbated by climate change and anxiety about climate change. Despite this knowledge, plaintiffs alleged, the United States acted with reckless and deliberate indifference by rolling back regulations and practices previously directed at addressing and minimizing the United States’ contribution to climate change. Plaintiffs challenged proposed funding reductions for federal agencies, including the EPA, decisions of various federal agencies to stop the work of climate change advisory boards, to alter climate change terminology on public websites, to hire researchers with industry ties, and to leave science- and environment-related positions within federal agencies understaffed or vacant (collectively: Rollbacks).

Plaintiffs alleged the Rollbacks violated their Fifth Amendment due process rights, Ninth Amendment rights, and the United States’ duty to hold the nation’s resources in public trust. The United States moved to dismiss plaintiff’s claims on three grounds: 1) plaintiffs’ lack of standing; 2) failure to state a claim; and 3) barred by the Administrative Procedure Act.


The District Court’s Decision



The court first considered whether plaintiffs had standing to bring their claims. The Clean Air Council lacked standing as an organization to bring suit on its members’ behalf. Organizational standing exists when: 1) the organization’s members would otherwise have standing to sue in their own right; 2) the interests at stake are germane to the organization’s purpose; and 3) neither the claim asserted nor the relief requested requires the participation of individual members in the lawsuit. The Clean Air Council failed to make any allegations regarding its members. Instead, in opposition to the United States’ motion to dismiss, the Clean Air Council submitted an affidavit containing general allegations that its members are harmed by the consequences of the Rollbacks. Noting that an affidavit does not amend a complaint, the court also concluded that such general allegations do not constitute specific harms to members. The Clean Air Council thus lacked organizational standing.

The court also concluded that the minors lacked Article III standing in their individual capacities. Article II standing exists where plaintiffs: 1) suffer an injury that is an invasion of a legally protected interest, particularized, concrete and actual or imminent; 2) the injury is fairly traceable to the challenged conduct of the defendant; and 3) the injury is likely to be redressed by a favorable judicial decision. The court determined the minors alleged an invasion of a legally protected interest and that the physical, asthma-related injuries—but not anxiety over climate change—were particularized and concrete. These injuries, however, were not imminent or certain. Instead, the court reasoned, the alleged exacerbation of allergies and asthma from climate change could only be linked to the Rollbacks through an attenuated, contingent chain of events that would require unnamed third parties to increase pollution of air in response to the Rollbacks, which would increase greenhouse gas emissions, which would cause further climate change, which will exacerbate the minors’ allergy and asthma symptoms. This speculative link to the United States did not provide the minors with standing.

The court next considered whether the minors’ their alleged injuries were fairly traceable to the Rollbacks. The traceability requirement focuses on whoinflicted plaintiff’s harm. An injury may not be the result of independent action by a third party not before the court. Because the minors’ injuries began before the alleged Rollbacks started, the court reasoned the injuries could not be traced to the Rollbacks. Further, many of the Rollbacks did not contribute to greenhouse gas emissions absent actions by third parties. Finally, even those portions of the Rollbacks related to the regulation of third-party actions failed to show how the Rollbacks increased climate change. Because the United States did not produce greenhouse gases, but only regulated third parties, the court found no plausible connection between the Rollbacks and the alleged injuries.

The court also determined the minors lacked standing because the injuries could not be redressed by the requested relief. The court refused to act as a monitor of the wisdom and soundness of the executive branch.


 Failure to State a Claim

Second, the court concluded that plaintiffs failed to state a claim because: (1) there is no legally cognizable due process right to environmental quality; (2) the Ninth Amendment provides no substantive rights to sustain plaintiffs’ action; and (3) the public trust claim had no basis in law. Following Third Circuit precedent, the court concluded there is no constitutional right to a pollution-free environment. Such a constitutionalization of all environmental claims would have no clear limit, as evidenced by plaintiffs’ requested remedies: altering agency web pages, approving hiring decisions, and ratifying the President’s cabinet appointments. The court determined plaintiffs’ disagreement with the Rollbacks is a policy debate best left to the political process. Further, because the alleged injuries were not traceable to the Rollbacks, the court concluded the “state-created danger doctrine” did not impose a duty on the United States to protect its citizens from the effects of climate change.

Turning to the Ninth Amendment claim, the court noted that the Ninth Amendment does not independently provide a source of individual constitutional rights and dismissed the claim with prejudice.

Finally, the court dismissed plaintiffs’ public trust claim. Under the public trust doctrine, the states are responsible for submerged land underneath navigable waters. In their claim, however, plaintiffs sought to invest the federal government with a duty to protect all land and resources within the United States as a substantive due process right. The court rejected this argument.


Conclusion and Implications

This case adds another voice to the jurisdictions refusing to constitutionalize environmental claims by noting that environmental regulation is a complex matter best addressed through policy discussions. The court’s rulings are available online at:

(Rebecca Andrews)