Last week, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the plaintiffs in Juliana v. United States do not have standing. Given where we are, this is about as momentous a decision as I can imagine. I get the majority opinion. Under traditional standing doctrine, it may even be right, though I think it’s a close call.
However, this is not a time for timidly falling back on the easy jurisprudential path. Extraordinary times demand something extraordinary, from our judges as well as our elected leaders. If our government is even around in a hundred years, I think that this decision will likely be seen as of a piece with Dred Scott, Plessy v. Ferguson, and Korematsu.
The cruel irony underlying the opinion is that it is the very scope of the climate problem and the comprehensive government response that it demands that is the basis of the court’s decision that courts are not in a position to oversee the response. Is this the first case ever brought before our nation’s courts in which the court ruled that it could not grant relief, precisely because relief is so necessary?
I’ll note one other issue. The majority opinion was clearly sympathetic to the plaintiffs, but ultimately concluded that:
the plaintiffs’ case must be made to the political branches or to the electorate at large.
What if, however, our legislative and executive branches are literally incapable of addressing climate change? That’s pretty much the view of my intellectual hero, Daniel Kahneman. If we are truly on the eve of destruction and Congress can’t do anything about it, must the courts remain powerless to step in? And so I’ll leave you with the conclusion of the dissent:
Were we addressing a matter of social injustice, one might sincerely lament any delay, but take solace that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” The denial of an individual, constitutional right—though grievous and harmful—can be corrected in the future, even if it takes 91 years. And that possibility provides hope for future generations.
Where is the hope in today’s decision? Plaintiffs’ claims are based on science, specifically, an impending point of no return. If plaintiffs’ fears, backed by the government’s own studies, prove true, history will not judge us kindly. When the seas envelop our coastal cities, fires and droughts haunt our interiors, and storms ravage everything between, those remaining will ask: Why did so many do so little?