Environment

These Kids Will See Trump in Court

Twenty-one kids and climate scientist James Hansen were suing the Obama administration to take more aggressive action on climate. Now, the climate-change-denying 45th president has inherited the case.

These Kids Will See Trump in Court

Levi Draheim (left, 8), Avery McRae (10), and Hazel Van Ummerson (11) respond to questions at a press conference after a hearing in Eugene, Oregon, in 2016. (Photo by Clayton Aldern/Grist & BillMoyers.com)

Donald Trump has yet another lawsuit to deal with. Twenty-one kids and climate scientist James Hansen are suing the US government to force it to contend with the threat of climate change, arguing that failing to do so deprives the young Americans and future generations of their right to a hospitable climate.

The suit was initially filed against Obama, but in a court filing yesterday, the plaintiffs switched the defendant’s name to “Donald J. Trump.” The American Petroleum Institute, the National Association of Manufacturers and the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers have also signed onto the suit as co-defendants.

“You’re suing Trump!” one 11-year-old plaintiff, Avery McRae, remembers her classmates pointing out on Nov. 9. “I’m like, ‘Yep.’ What did I get myself into?” she told The Atlantic.

Labeling Trump as the defendant certainly makes for a clear-cut narrative. While Barack Obama’s administration took some action to confront climate change and pursued a UN agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions, Donald Trump has called climate change a “hoax,” a “con” and “bullshit.” He has said time and again he does not believe it is a problem, and has expressed hostility to the idea of international cooperation to address it.

Meanwhile, he has eagerly championed the fossil fuel industry, whose products are driving climate change and who for years lobbied forcefully against climate action. With fossil fuel industry allies, lobbyists and even the former head of Exxon serving in Trump’s administration, the line between the industry and the federal government has become increasingly blurred.

The case is expected to go to trial at federal court in Eugene, Oregon later in 2017. In a conference earlier this week, Judge Thomas Coffin said both sides should be prepared to focus on the science. “The judge in there was very clear that he is going to allow us to bring the science into the courtroom,” Philip Gregory, an attorney for the young plaintiffs, told the CBS affiliate in Eugene.

That’s a good sign for the plaintiffs, who argue that the science indicates a clear need for climate action, and that the government has ignored that science at citizens’ expense. It will also put Trump’s lawyers in the interesting position of having to publicly discuss the implications of studies by climate scientists who Trump has dismissed as “global warming HOAXSTERS.” That particular opinion probably won’t hold up in court.

“For Donald Trump to come to the court and bring a climate denialism set of facts won’t fly for two reasons,” Julia Olsen, an attorney for the young plaintiffs, told us in November. “One, you can’t perjure yourself in a court of law, and, two, any expert you bring in to testify before the judge has to be qualified as an expert by the court. They will not be able to come into that courtroom and bring their climate denialism agenda.”

The last episode of Moyers & Company was about this lawsuit and the legal framework that it rests on. Watch:

Read more of our stories on the court case.

John Light

Reporter/Producer

John Light is a reporter and producer for the Moyers team. His work has appeared at The Atlantic, Grist, Mother Jones, Salon, Slate, Vox and Al Jazeera, and has been broadcast on Public Radio International. He's a graduate of Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. You can follow him on Twitter at @LightTweeting.